July 31, 2014  

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Southern Miss Leading the Way in Preserving Oral Histories from Civil Rights Movement

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Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes

Voting rights. Jim Crow. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The murders of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss. The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer has focused the nation’s attention on the Civil Rights Movement in the state, and The University of Southern Mississippi is leading the way in preserving the divisive era’s history.

A new two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will make it possible for the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage (COHCH) at Southern Miss to bring the oral history of the Civil Rights Movement to the public.

Since its founding in 1971, COHCH has collected the personal stories of Mississippians and is now the pre-eminent oral history archive for the state of Mississippi, as well as an important national resource for understanding the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1964, Mississippi was at the center of the struggle to achieve universal voting rights.  COHCH’s extensive collection makes it possible to learn about that struggle from the people who lead it, offering invaluable insight into how and why Mississippians got involved, what they did, what it meant to them at the time, and what it still means to them today. 

Now, with the support of the NEH, the COHCH, in partnership with Southern Miss Libraries and ITech, Southern Miss’ technology support services, will make these stories of everyday bravery available online.

Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes, director of COHCH, says the selection process to secure funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities is rigorous and highly competitive.

“Southern Miss was one of only a handful of successful applicants to the National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation and Access grant program. This award is indicative of the importance of the center and the work it has done in preserving the stories of Mississippians for over four decades,” he said

The grant will make it possible over the next two years to go through COHCH’s collections and digitally preserve interviews that currently only exist on fragile cassette and reel-to-reel tape. Once the tapes have been digitized, the new recordings will be made available online through the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and the Mississippi Digital Library, as well as COHCH’s website.

“Right now, Southern Miss has published 450 of our most important civil rights oral history interviews to the university’s digital collections. This grant will allow us to double the number of interviews available through Southern Miss’s digital collections. Anyone with access to the Internet will able to learn the history of Mississippi’s freedom struggle by listening to the stories of the participants themselves,” said Kyriakoudes.

Elizabeth LaBeaud, the digital lab manager with University Libraries, believes that in addition to the grant support, collaboration between University Libraries and iTech is the key to the project’s success. 

“We are proud to partner with the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage and make this significant collection available. This will be the largest addition of audio files in our digital collections to date,” said LaBeaud.

The project, “The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi: Providing Access at the 50th Anniversary,” will digitally preserve an additional 332 audio interviews, index 160 interviews that were previously not transcribed, and publish 443 interviews to the university’s digital collections. For the first time, these stories of political struggle, previously only available as transcripts, will be available to listen to on the Internet.  Soon the voices of Mississippi’s Civil Rights workers will bring their struggle for racial justice to life.

The first interview to be released will be that of Fannie Lou Hamer. A self-made Civil Rights activist from Sunflower Country famed for inspiring others to stand up for their rights, Hamer worked with students from across the nation to help register African-Americans to vote in the early 1960s. She then went on to help build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. in 1964 when seats were unbolted from the convention center floor to prevent the MFDP from voting. 

“She was a pioneer and the single most requested interview in the center’s collection. We’re proud to make her interview the first available in this newly digitized set to scholars, historians and the public,” said Kyriakoudes.

Dr. Steven R. Moser, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said the collaborative project will enhance the overall profile of the university and extend beyond.

“The extraordinary research conducted by the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage is not only important to Southern Miss, making us a leading institution of preserving oral history and the study of the Civil Rights movement, but it is also important to the state of Mississippi and throughout the nation,” said Moser.

Since 1999, COHCH has partnered with the Mississippi Humanities Council and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to implement the Mississippi Oral History Project (MOHP), a statewide initiative involving community organizations, scholars, public school teachers, and many others to interview and preserve stories of Mississippians. 

In addition to archiving the histories of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the MOHP has also collected interviews from veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and the Global War on Terror; Hurricane Katrina storm victims; interviews of railroad workers from the Illinois Central Shops in McComb, Miss.; interviews with Vietnamese-Americans living in the Gulf South and many other extraordinary stories from everyday people.

To learn more about the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage and to access the Digital Archives, visit www.usm.edu/oral-history.