Library screens historic interviews in honor of MLK
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, the University Library Wednesday screened excerpts from the William Elwood Civil Rights Lawyers project, a compilation of 86 video interviews chronicling the legal battle against school segregation.
William Elwood, a civil rights advocate and former assistant to Edgar Shannon, the fourth University president, taped the interviews for his documentary “The Road to Brown v. Board of Education.”
“These oral interviews … give voice to the legal makers of the civil rights history, those who were agents of change from the ground up,” History Prof. Phyllis Leffler said.
For his project, Elwood — who had no background in film making but was committed to racial equality in Charlottesville and at the University — recorded 273 interview tapes. The University Library began digitally preserving his interviews in the early 2000s.
“[The interviews] range from in-depth legal strategies to personal accounts on the justice under Jim Crow,” Leffler said. “When people were making the assumption that the Brown decision sprang from the heads of liberal enlightened white Supreme Court justices … Elwood knew that the story involved many more people in the trenches.”
Leffler, University Library Research Archivist Ervin Jordan and Patrice Grimes, associate dean of the Office of African American Affairs, sat on a panel discussion after the screening.
Whereas a number of civil rights stories focus on racial oppression before the civil rights movement, Elwood’s film focuses on African Americans’ agency in their liberation, Grimes said. “The counter narrative that must be portrayed … is black people not as victims, but blacks who were resilient,” she said.
To supplement the film’s narrative Jordan spoke of his experiences attending a newly integrated Norfolk, Va. high school in the early 1970s. Klu Klux Klan members painted a warning sign on his house, which he and his father “solemnly stroked away with a bucket of turpentine” the next morning, Jordan said.
As the school system did not provide black students transportation across town, Jordan took and paid for the city bus. City drivers would drive by groups of black students waiting to go to school, he said.
“We weren’t afraid,” Jordan said. “We didn’t think of ourselves as heroes, but we knew we were making history.”