Tag Archives: oral histories

Remembering Medgar Evers

14 Jun
Myrlie Evers-Williams in "Eyes on the Prize"

Myrlie Evers-Williams in “Eyes on the Prize”

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers. Evers, a civil rights activist and the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, organized voter registration drives and boycotts in Jackson, Mississippi to fight the segregated system existing at that time. He was gunned down in front of his home on June 12, 1963. The man responsible for his murder, Byron De La Beckwith, was finally convicted of the crime in 1994.

Blackside devoted a segment of “Eyes on the Prize” to Evers’ story, “Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964),” that includes original interview footage with Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s widow.

Their son, Darrell Evers was also interviewed and both of these interviews are available in full online as part of the Eyes on the Prize Interviews: The Complete Series digital collection resource.

In her interview Myrlie Evers-Williams talks about her background, growing up in segregated Mississippi, meeting Medgar at college, and their life together.

Medgar Evers was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi when Emmett Till was murdered and helped witnesses in that trial leave the state of Mississippi after testifying. Evers-Williams describes his role in that case,

Medgar played a very important role, I feel, in the Emmett Till case. As field secretary for the NAACP a part of his responsibility was to investigate murders. He and Amzie Moore and a few others dressed as sharecroppers, would change cars to trucks and what-not, go on the plantations, ask people, go into the communities and ask people information about the murderers or the accused murderers—what had happened—of certainly making contact with the local officials and getting the press out. And it was a very dangerous job at that particular time. Medgar was also responsible not only for finding witnesses but helping to get them out of town. And I remember one very distinct case where he used a casket, and put a person in a casket…in conjunction with a mortuary, and got the person out of town. Out of town, out of the state, across the border, to Tennessee, and then north.

Interview with Myrlie Evers , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 27, 1985 for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Shortly after Medgar Evers’ death, Byron De La Beckwith, whose fingerprints were found on the high-powered rifle used to kill Evers and who was seen near the crime scene that night, was arrested and charged with the crime.  In 1964 there were two trials in the case but both ended in hung juries. At the time of the Eyes on the Prize interview, De La Beckwith was still a free man, and Evers-Williams talked about the first two trials,

Two trials were held for the accused assassin of Medgar; both ended in hung juries. And the whole case was very interesting insomuch as the way the accused killer was treated. He had a large cell that was open for him to come and go as he wanted to. He had television sets. He had typewriters. He had all, almost all, of the comforts of home. This man was also accorded a major parade along the route of the highway on his way home. People had banners that were waved, welcoming the hero. The accused killer also made a statement to the press that he was glad to have gotten rid of varmints. After the—oh, and I must say too, that the then-governor, Ross Barnett, actually made a visit to the accused during the trial, the first trial, and walked in the door when I was on the witness stand, stood, looked at me, turned and went over to the accused killer, sat down, shook his hand, said some remarks, and got up and went out. Also, the accused killer, after the second trial, ran for Lieutenant Governor of the state of Mississippi, and he stated that he was doing this to show his appreciation to the people of Mississippi for what they had given, the support that they had given him while he was incarcerated. Interestingly enough, the man who ran for, Governor was the prosecuting attorney.

It says a couple of things to me and I had mixed emotions about it all. One was that this was the first time in the state of Mississippi that a white man had ever been brought to trial for the murder of a black, and a black man. That was a step forward, a very small one, but a step forward. However, the fact that there were two trials, that this man was treated as a hero, and that everything was dropped, still said to me at that time—and I’m not sure whether it isn’t even at this day in time—that black is black. That perhaps the justice that is accorded other ethnic groups in the United States, and certainly Mississippi, is still not accorded that of blacks. We’re still fighting for first-class citizenship whether it be in life, or whether it be in death.

Interview with Myrlie Evers , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 27, 1985 for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Myrlie Evers-Williams fought for many years to get the case re-opened, and when new evidence came to light about jury tampering and official misconduct in the first two trials, the case was reopened.  In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the murder of Medgar Evers. De La Beckwith remained in jail until his death in 2001.


Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

15 Feb
Ella Baker

Ella Baker

Ella Baker was a civil rights activist who helped found and organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her name is not as well-known as many of the other leaders of the civil rights movement but she played a pivotal role in many organizations and campaigns from the 1940s onward. Born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. Ella Baker had a long history of working as an organizer and activist before founding SNCC in 1960. She worked for the NAACP in the 1940s and then with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded in part by Martin Luther King, Jr. beginning in 1957. Then in the spring of 1960 a wave of student protests began, starting with a group of students who refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Similar protests began occurring in Nashville, Tennessee led by students from local university’s including Fisk University.

Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961) was the third episode of  Eyes on the Prize and had a segment on these student protests. Many of the interviewees were organizers and members of SNCC including Diane Nash, Robert Moses and John Lewis. In her interview for Eyes on the Prize, Diane Nash talked specifically about Ella Baker, Baker’s importance for SNCC, and how she empowered the students to take the lead with the protests,

Ella Baker was very important to giving direction to the student movement at that particular point. And not giving direction in a way of her making decisions, as to what the students ought to do, but in terms of really seeing how important it was to recognize the fact that the students should set the, the goals and directions, and maintain control of the student movement. So, she was there in terms of offering rich experience of her own, and advice, and helping patch things up when they needed to be patched up. She was very important to me, personally, for several reasons. Number one, I was just beginning to learn, during that period of time, how everyone, particularly people who were older than we were, had other motives for their participation. Motives other than simply achieving freedom. There were people involved who worked with civil rights organizations who were very concerned about their organization’s image, and perpetuating their organization, who were concerned about fund-raising, and who would make decisions and take positions, based on those concerns, even at the expense, sometime, of actually gaining desegregation, such as the students were trying to do. And that was a very energy-draining thing for me, sometimes. And I didn’t—I remember a couple of times when things had happened that really bothered me, that I didn’t totally understand. I never had to worry about where Ella Baker was coming from. She was a very honest person, and she was—she would speak her mind honestly. She was a person that I turned to frequently who could emotionally pick me back up and dust me off. And she would say things, like, “Well, so-and-so is concerned about his fund-raising, maybe that’s why he took,”—and it would make things click, and fall into place, and she was just tremendously helpful, to me personally, and also to SNCC. I think she was constantly aware of the fact that the differences that the students had were probably not as important as the similarities that we had, in terms of what we were trying to do. So, very often, she was the person who was able to make us see, and work together. I think her participation as a person some years older than we, could really serve as a model of how older people can give energy and help to younger people, at the same time, not take over and tell them what to do, really strengthen them as individuals and also strengthen—she strengthened our organization.

Interview with Diane Nash, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 12, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Baker has been quoted as saying, “strong people don’t need strong leaders,” and SNCC’s philosophy was to empower both the students and the most oppressed members of the communities to decide what action they were going to take themselves, rather than rely on directives or orders from the leaders of the movement. Ella Baker was undoubtedly a leader and mentor to many people but her way of leading was to empower others to take action and direct their own campaigns and actions.

The complete collection of full length transcripts from Eyes on the Prize are available online.

More resources for Ella Baker can be found at the Ella Baker Center, and an oral history interview with Ella Baker, conducted by  former SNCC members Casey Hayden and Sue Thrasher, is available online in audio and transcript form at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s project, Documenting the American South.

The Great Depression Interviews

2 Nov

Still from “Interview with Ossie Davis” – The Great Depression

The Film & Media Archive reached a milestone this week in The Great Depression transcript project. All of the original interviews from The Great Depression series are now digitized. There are 148 interviews from the series and the interviewees range from well-known people such as Ossie Davis, Gore Vidal, and Adam Clayton Powell III to previously unknown but important figures—labor organizers, sharecroppers, farmers, political activists, writers, and photographers— who were witnesses to one of the most difficult and political volatile periods in American history. Highlights from the series and interviews include an in-depth look at Henry Ford and his factory, the 1934 Upton Sinclair campaign for governor on the “End Poverty in California” platform, a behind-the-scenes look at New York politics in the 1930s, and many other stories of struggle and eventual success.

Still from “Interview with Paul Boatin” – The Great Depression

This is one phase of a collaborative project between the Film & Media Archive and Digital Library Services. The work of transcribing the interviews and preparing them for the web continues and the goal for the next phase is for all text from the transcripts to be transcribed, edited, and encoded into xml documents that meet TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) standards. The end goal is to present an online resource where users can browse the names, or search by keyword across all the interviews. The model for this site is the Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Interviews online resource.

Norma Rydlewski from “Interview with Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh” – The Great Depression

Eventually we hope to make the audio and video available online  allowing researchers the choice to read, listen, or watch the complete interviews. These interviews are a very valuable resource for researchers, and the topic of the series remains relevant today.

Shown here are stills from the interviews. The great actor, Ossie Davis, was interviewed about his experiences as an African-American in the South during the 1930s, and then in New York. Paul Boatin described his experience as a worker at the Ford Motor Factory during the 1920s. Norma Rydlewski was interviewed with her sister, Katherine McIntosh about their mother, Florence Owens Thompson, who was the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic image, “Migrant Mother.”

The Great Depression

26 Oct

The Blackside series, The Great Depression, debuted on PBS on October 25, 1993. After the success of Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton set out to tell the history of the turbulent 1930s. As with Eyes on the Prize, Hampton wanted to look beyond the well-worn, familiar stories to find the individuals who were not in history books, but nonetheless could tell the story of that time in a way that had not been heard before.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange – 1936

Two of the people interviewed for the series were Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh, the daughters of Florence Owens Thompson, who was the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic image, “Migrant Mother.”  In 1936, Dorothea Lange was working as a photographer for the Farm Securities Administration, documenting the devastating effects of the Great Depression. She photographed Thompson and her children at the end of a month-long trip of photographing migratory farm laborers.

Lange later said,

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. (Popular Photography, Feb. 1960)

The other images she took that day are from a further distance and show the tent and surrounding ground, but it is the medium close-up with Thompson in the center of the frame which became the iconic image.

When Blackside interviewed Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh in 1992, they gave a fuller picture of their mother and their transitory life at that time.

Norma who was the baby shown in her mother’s arms in the photograph, said,

I remember just moving all the time. We moved. Even as a little child I remember we’d load up…the tent or sometimes just a mattress or whatever we had, and we’d load that up and went to the next camp. But I can remember that being really young, and I remember thinking, “We’re not going to be here very long, so we’re going to go on down the road…My mom would talk to the farmers and make the arrangements for us to all go work, and then she’d get us together. We’d get up at like four in the morning. We’d all head out to the field. I always considered my mom very, very strong. Looking at her, in the pictures a lot of times she didn’t look like a beautiful woman, but she really was…We knew that when we got up in the morning that there was going to be work, or there was going to be food, and the reason it was going to be there was because my mom was going to see to it that we were going to be able to survive that day.

Katherine McIntosh, who was four years old at the time of the photograph and is one of the two girls shown leaning against her mother, described their  life and circumstances at that time,

I felt that I had to contribute, all of us did. That was our way of life. If we wanted anything, of course we all hoped out life would get better, which it did when we got older. Anyway we followed the fields…and the story first was told that Mother was selling the tires off our car to buy food, and my mother denied that. My older brother said that the radiator on our car had blew up, and when this picture was made they,him and I guess my two brothers had gone into town to try to get the radiator welded, and that’s what we were doing there. But we were like everyone else. We were looking for work.

In the interview, Norma also revealed that Thompson was an early union organizer,

One thing Mom taught us is that, one of the things that she was involved in is that she was an early union organizer. Katherine remembers that more than I do, but remembers having meetings when we were living even in the fields. Mom was real interested in that because that was our ticket out, to organize the unions.

– All quotes from: Interview with Katherine McIntosh and Norma Rydlewski, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 9, 1992, for The Great Depression. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The family eventually settled in Modesto, California. At the time, Lange did not record Thompson name and she was only identified as the subject of Lange’s photo in the 1970s by a reporter for the Modesto Bee, Emmett Corrigan. The digitization of Blackside’s transcript is part of a larger project to digitize all the original interviews for The Great Depression series. Digitization of the video interviews is almost complete and the Film & Media Archive is working to have the original transcripts online in the near future, in the model of the Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series online transcripts.

Episodes in the series covered Henry Ford and political activities by Ford workers, the New Deal, novelist and socialist Upton Sinclair’s 1934 campaign for governor on the “End Poverty in California” platform, union activity, and the build-up to World War II. Other interviewees include Gore Vidal, Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis, Charles Dempsey Floyd (Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s son), Adam Clayton Powell, III, and many others.