The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) owns one of the nation's richest archives documenting events of the civil rights struggle 50 years ago. The collection contains more than 1,000 boxes of unpublished letters, diaries, meeting minutes and memos, phone logs, photographs, audio tapes, and other documents obtained at the grassroots level. Much of the collection - 30,000 items - has been digitized and is now available at the click of a mouse. When the question is asked, "Why Wisconsin rather than Washington, D.C?" the answer is a handful of UW-Madison graduate students who braved the tumult and dangers of the times to collect this evidence of the civil rights movement.
|"History is not long ago and far away," Michael Edmonds,|
Deputy Director of the WHS Library-Archives, stated in
his introduction of the students who gathered in Madison
to share their stories.
In December of 1964, three of the members of the panel who spoke approached then WHS Director Les Fishel with a proposal to collect material of the civil rights movement that wasn't easily collectible - stories and papers of ordinary people. These students knew the people involved in the struggle because they had worked in the South to organize residents for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and register voters. Some were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
|Freedom Summer panel members|
Front row: Mimi Feingold Reel, Vicki Gabriner, Alicia Kaplow
Back row: Bob Gabriner, Leah Johnson Wise, Gwen Gollon
Back in the 1960s these students were being taught by such UW-Madison legendary professors as Harvey Goldberg and George Mosse. They believed that history was being made from the bottom up. Studying social action movements was a new approach to studying history at that time. These students helped regular people appreciate and respect their own work.
Because I had worked for the Wisconsin Historical Society's Foundation in the past, I was familiar with the letter written on toilet paper from a southern jail. A facsimile of it was displayed in the Director's Office. But now I heard the rest of the story from the author, Mimi Feingold, herself. She managed to wrangle a pencil from the jail's trustee and wrote the letter to her CORE friend on the only paper available to her - toilet paper. Getting the letter out of jail was another matter. Mimi shared how her mother, who was not a good seamstress, had hemmed the skirt she was wearing - with long stitches. Mimi was able to roll up the letter and hide it in the hem of her dress once she was released.
Staff at WHS have also created a special exhibit, "Risking Everything," for students that is displayed on the first floor of the Society's headquarters at 816 State Street.
The WHS Press has released Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Reader, edited by Michael Edmonds. Firsthand accounts of the struggle for civil rights is provided in this book as well as a broader understanding of the movement. Another fine example of the work done by the Wisconsin Historical Society, one of the great treasures of my state.