oral history project aims to connect recent activism to the broader civil rights movement | New

About a year ago, local filmmaker Joshua Parks wanted to interview activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement in Charleston. He approached two staff members of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston – Erica Veal and Daron Calhoun.

Veal, archivist, and Calhoun, coordinator of public programming and the Race and Social Justice Initiative, objected. They weren’t eager to revisit the challenges and traumas of the recent past, Veal said. They told Parks, then a graduate assistant at the Avery, to turn back.

But an idea had germinated, and soon Avery’s executive director, Tamara Butler, found a grant opportunity to pursue an oral history project. The initiative took root.

“Documenting the Arc” is now well underway, thanks to a $100,000 award from the Dorothy and Gaylord Donnelley Foundation that landed in July. About 25 interviews with local activists have been recorded since November. 10 more are in the hopper.

The goal is not only to document anti-racism activism in Charleston since 2014, but also to contextualize that activism within the broader civil rights movement, Butler said. In doing so, Avery’s team hopes to challenge the “Charleston Strong” narrative of racial welfare solidarity and the general perception that the city has never been a Birmingham-like hotbed of rebellion and protest. or Montgomery or Memphis.

A community advisory board has been formed to help identify oral history topics, said Aaisha Haykal, Avery Archives Services Manager. Those interviewed include filmmaker Jason Gourdine; Pastor Thomas Dixon; barber Feidin Santana, who captured Walter Scott’s 2015 shooting on video; Treeva Williams, who leads the Charleston-area Department of Justice; and Brandon Fish, who was a close friend of the late Muhiyidin D’Baja and an early Black Lives Matter protester.

Video interviews conducted by Millicent Brown, a retired history professor, will be transcribed and the text released by the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital Library, Haykal said. The team will organize a public exhibition, produce a documentary film and develop a school curriculum.

Parks and Gourdine provide video footage of various protests and events that will ultimately be used to make a documentary film, she said.

The Charleston United Front (copy)

Marcus McDonald with Black Lives Matter (center), Jason Jones (left), founder of the United Front of Charleston, and Pastor Thomas Dixon appear during a press conference on December 10, 2020 in Summerville. Brad Nettles/staff

Brown said the timing of the project was excellent.

“Enough time has passed” – since the events that sparked the last wave of local activism – “for residents to have been able to reflect and gain some perspective on their activities,” she said.

Yet these events, including the shooting of Scott by a North Charleston police officer, the violence at the Emanuel AME Church and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the protests they sparked, are vividly remembered by people questioned.

“The idea of ​​making these reflections available to people in the future is so important, because they have a chance to be identified not just by sound bites,” Brown said. “Our project gives them enough time to really explain philosophically, politically, what their motivations really were.”

It also expands the definition of “activist,” she said.

Respondents aren’t just the people with the loudest voices. Many went unnoticed by the wider community, but played a vital role.

“By identifying so many people, we really get insight into the depth of people’s engagement,” she said. “Almost all of these people continue their commitment to social justice, in various cities, in various capacities.”

The testimonies reveal details about recent activism, but also hint at a larger point, Brown added.

“When people get into this work, they have to understand that institutional change doesn’t happen quickly or easily,” she said.

Black Lives Matter: What it is, what it does and how it fits into civil rights history

Kerri Forrest, director of Lowcountry programs for the Donnelley Foundation, said she was thrilled to support a project that connects the present to the past.

“The fact that they wanted to start with the Black Lives Matter movement and look back was fascinating to me,” Forrest said.

The effort will also draw comparisons between civil rights activism here and elsewhere in the United States, she said.

“In a place where we talk a lot about ancient history, I loved that we contextualized current history.”

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Protesters scream after being blocked on Archdale Street in Charleston during a Black Lives Matter march on August 29, 2020, after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Butler said the title “Documenting the Arc” refers to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It also alludes to the fact that Charleston has a lot to document.

“A lot of times Charleston isn’t seen as a civil rights space,” Butler said. “We really wanted to highlight the fact that Charleston hasn’t always been united.”

It has been the subject of labor disputes, popular resistance to authority, protest marches, forms of nonviolent direct action and more. Major civil rights figures have visited the city over the years, including King in the 1960s and the Reverend William Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

The Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Fighters of South Carolina, Then and Now

Charleston produced important civil rights leaders, such as J. Arthur Brown, Harvey Gantt, the Reverend Nelson Rivers III, and Brown’s daughter Millicent Brown.

And the metro area has seen violent race-related outbursts in recent years, such as the murder of Scott, the white supremacist murder of nine members of Emanuel AME, both in 2015, and the early 2021 death of Jamal Sutherland while in the custody of authorities.

Current activism is therefore nothing new; it’s a continuation of efforts started a long time ago, Butler said.

“There are conditions in Charleston that made all of these things possible,” she said. “Charleston has always been a place of contention.”

The new oral history project aims to shed light on these conditions and document efforts to address them.

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