Robert Penn Warren Archive Brings Early Civil Rights to Life

While an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, writer Robert Penn Warren began writing about the south and its turbulent racial history. He traveled throughout the United States and interviewed men and women involved with the Civil Rights Movement, recording each conversation on a reel-to-reel tape recorder—a project that resulted in the 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro? This month, Vanderbilt University’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities makes a full digital record available of Warren’s research for the book—an impressive and well-constructed collection of interviews with historical figures including Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Malcolm X. The richness of the site is its connective design. Each interview is tagged by topic, including a subject’s link to broader issues or to other interviewees, making evident through user experience the complex nature of the Civil Rights Movement. A search for the NAACP, for example, yields multiple interviews featuring different points of view on the organization’s formation along with PDFs of original letters and the searchable text of newspaper articles about early NAACP demonstrations. But the site’s audio offerings are its most powerful assets.

The material offers a potent portrait of a historical moment and is rich with references to politics, art and specific conflicts over integration. The group interviews with university students and protesters are worth a listen, both for the content and for the early 1960s group dynamics. When Warren interviews men and women together, men tend to speak first and at most length. But the views expressed are fascinating, as in one case when a female sit-in participant gives her opinion about assimilation.

“My first reaction of course would be, thinking of Socrates: Know thyself. We do face the problem of amalgamation into the whole of American life, being Americans first, say, or being what I would like to term Negro Americans or Black Americans. I think that we as black men have an obligation to know ourselves as black men and be proud of what we are, and contribute to America what we could actually offer to this culture.”

Kate Rix is an Oakland based writer. See more of her work at .

Related Content: 

Malcolm X at Oxford, 1964

Great Cultural Icons Talk Civil Rights (1963)

MLK’s Ominous Final Speech

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