Civil rights archive now open to the public

Published 05-19-2012

Photo: Protesters gather to support the Charleston hospital workers strike in South Carolina, 1969. Ralph David Abernathy was arrested twice during these demonstrations, and penned his "Letter from a Charleston Jail" while imprisoned. Credit: Photo from the SCLC archives, MARBL at Emory University.
The archive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) opened to researchers and the public at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) on May 1.

The collection of 918 boxes primarily covers the SCLC’s activities and business from 1968 to 2007 and includes administrative files with correspondence, reports, memos, notebooks and meeting minutes, as well as photographs, flyers, and audio and video recordings.

The SCLC was founded in Atlanta in 1957 by a group of civil rights leaders from across the Southeast that included Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph E. Lowery, each of whom also served as president. The organization continues to operate today.

MARBL purchased the SCLC’s records in 2008, and archivists began processing the collection in 2009. Twelve people over three years worked on the project, including student assistants and graduate students, said Sarah Quigley, the project’s archivist.

One of the most compelling parts of the archive is the collection of transcripts audio recordings, and other materials for the radio show “Martin Luther King Speaks,” which aired from 1967 to 1979. The program aired speeches and interviews with prominent members of the civil rights movement, as well as with women’s rights activists, anti-war activists, and other significant cultural figures. This part of the collection demonstrates SCLC’s engagement with a broad array of issues and social movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

“We have the edited transcripts of the programs, as well as complete unedited interviews and speeches, plus audio recordings of the programs,” Quigley said. “Researchers can see all through the editing process how the show was made, and what sorts of topics were being discussed. It’s a really rich portion of the collection that people haven’t had access to.”

The collection also includes planning files, photographs, audio and video recordings that document other major SCLC activities, such as the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, its involvement in the Charleston hospital workers strike of 1969 and the Crisis in Health Care for Black and Poor Americans hearings in 1984, and its Gun Buyback Program in the 1990s.

Materials from the 1980s also document the SCLC’s fight against apartheid, particularly its 1985 boycott of Winn-Dixie stores in a successful attempt to get the chain to stop selling products grown or manufactured in South Africa.

“SCLC spoke out about the voting issues in Florida surrounding the 2004 election, and we have documents about that,” Quigley said. “I think anyone who is interested in the civil rights movement as an unfinished movement, or as a continuing movement, will find a wealth of information in this collection that really illuminates the efforts to continue fighting for things like voting rights into the 21st century.”

Even though there was no finding aid until the collection was processed, MARBL began a list in 2009 of researchers who were already interested in using the archive. “Even with no formal description available, people were hearing about the SCLC collection via our blog and our Facebook page and finding me to ask questions about it,” Quigley said.

Among those on the waiting list are scholars and researchers from across the country as well as from England and Germany. There also have been inquiries from family members of individuals killed in race-related violence that the SCLC spoke out against, said Ginger Smith, interim director of MARBL and director of external affairs for the Emory Libraries.

The processing of the collection was made possible by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Hidden Collections grant, funded by the Mellon Foundation. CLIR’s Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant program is designed to uncover previously inaccessible archival material and make it available to researchers.

“Emory is honored to house these records and make them available, with equal access, to researchers of every age and stage of scholarly research, whether that person is a freshman in a history class or an award-winning historian writing another in a series of books on the civil rights movement,” Smith said. “This collection is an ideal complement to other holdings in MARBL that document subject areas such as African American history and civil rights history, with a particular focus on civil rights and the Left, as well as the role of women in the civil rights struggle.”

An exhibition based on the SCLC materials is tentatively scheduled for spring 2013. For questions about accessing the collection, contact Sarah Quigley at or

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