Research News

Vanderbilt digital archive recovers lost Civil Rights voices

Robert Penn Warren (Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives. Photo by Peter Fink)

Digitized versions of the original reel-to-reel recordings that author Robert Penn Warren conducted with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other key leaders in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement are now searchable through the Who Speaks for the Negro website housed at Vanderbilt University.

Warren traveled throughout the United States in early 1964 to interview nationally-known Civil Rights leaders as well as others working in the trenches whose names might otherwise be lost to history. Warren’s resulting book, Who Speaks for the Negro, was published by Random House in 1965 with portions of the transcripts and Warren’s reflections on those he interviewed.

The original recordings are held at the University of Kentucky and Yale University libraries, but the two institutions were not aware of each other’s collections for many years, according to Mona Frederick, executive director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt.

It was Frederick’s efforts to build a state-of-the-art digital archive that includes not only the recordings, but also some 4,000 pages of searchable interview transcripts and photographs that led to her discovery of recordings at both Kentucky and Yale.

(Mona Frederick)

“This is a wonderful example of how, in the age of digital humanities, split collections can be made whole and anyone with access to the Internet can use the material,” Frederick said. “The digital archive is among the very best of its kind and I am grateful to the Vanderbilt library for its role in the creation of this amazing resource.”

Frederick noted that there are many people whom Warren interviewed but did not include in his book. For example, listen to a sample of Warren’s interview with Septima Clark, who has been called the “grandmother” of the Civil Rights Movement. During her interview, she discusses her arrest and trial in Tennessee for her work at the Highlander Folk School, among other topics. There is no mention of Clark in Warren’s book.

Warren also interviewed the Rev. James Lawson, who was expelled from Vanderbilt University for his work in the Civil Rights Movement, including the Nashville sit-ins. Listen to a sample of Lawson’s interview, which resulted in only a footnote in Warren’s book.

In addition to the audio tapes, there are two versions of the transcripts: an image of the original document that is not searchable and a re-transcribed document that is searchable. Therefore, one could easily do a search for the Nashville sit-in movement, Vanderbilt University or numerous other topics to see exactly where they are mentioned on the tapes.

Warren, a poet, novelist, critic and professor who graduated summa cum laude from Vanderbilt published the volume at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, this material helps to show the distance that the nation has traveled in terms of race relations. For example, it is unlikely anyone would ask to speak for a race in 2012, Frederick noted.

“This was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the people interviewed were incredibly busy,” Frederick said. “It’s remarkable that they even had time to sit down with Warren. The archive provides a “clear snapshot” of what was happening on the ground during that historic era.” She pointed out that Warren’s interview with Malcolm X was one of the last before he was assassinated. Meanwhile, Lawson, who is now a Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumnus, has said that he did not even remember having met with Warren for the interview.

Frederick, who plans to reach out to middle and high school educators in the hopes that the digital archive can become part of their curriculums, is exploring the possibility of having Warren’s book republished in time for its 50th anniversary. “Warren noted on the tapes that someday the interviews would be amazingly valuable material and, obviously, he was correct.”