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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