MLK tapes, other civil rights elements returning to Charleston

Nearly three years ago, it was unclear what would happen to a cache of Civil Rights-era artifacts from Charleston.

The collection included the soundtrack of a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on July 30, 1967, at Charleston County Hall, as well as a surreptitiously made recording of a Ku Klux Klan rally the day before King’s appearance.

It also contained the audio of Ralph Abernathy’s long speech from April 1, 1969, delivered during the Charleston hospital workers’ strike.

Abernathy had become president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after King’s assassination in April 1968, and he was in town with other civil rights leaders to support nurses and other workers protesting wage inequality and mistreatment.

The audio recordings have only been heard by a few and are sure to catch the attention of civil rights scholars, students and others. 1967 was a pivotal year in King’s life, which shifted his focus from integration and emancipation to systemic issues of mass poverty, American imperialism, and black self-determination.

The collection was auctioned in 2019 and sold in New York for $55,000 plus a 25% buyer’s premium.

It is now back in Charleston, which is part of the holdings of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston thanks to a gift from the Merrill C. Berman Collection. Avery staff plan to mount an exhibit in 2023 contextualizing and interpreting the materials for public consumption.

The articles belonged to Columbia-based journalist Eugene Sloan, who covered the events and made the recordings while working for The State newspaper. His daughters, Laura and Mary, tried to sell the collection intact a few years ago. The International African American Museum declined the offer because at the time it was not a collecting institution and did not have the means to store and preserve the materials, a curator said.

Bureaucracy got in the way when the Avery and the Center for History and Civil Rights Research at the University of South Carolina expressed interest in procuring the collection.

At the time, Summerville resident Laura Crosby and her sister Mary Roby were disappointed the box full of civil rights history hadn’t been purchased by someone in Charleston, Crosby told the Post and Courier. .

Their father had a high opinion of King and appreciated the efforts of civil rights activists, she said. Sloan died of a heart attack in 1969. The items sat in storage for decades.

Avery manager Tamara Butler said the collection will help her team update a narrative that has long portrayed Charleston as a relatively soft place that has seen far less confrontation and violence than cities like Birmingham or Montgomery. in Alabama.

There’s a reason King came to Charleston in 1967, she says. The foundations had been laid by local activists for many years since the city was not an afterthought of the freedom movement but one of its vital centers.

That’s why Butler wants to use the new gift and the story it represents as a tool to find related testimonies of racial resistance and rebellion.

“The biggest hope for us is that it will open a gateway for us to collect stories,” she said.

Perhaps some in Charleston can share their memories of that time — where they were and what they were doing the night of King’s speech, or when Abernathy was in town, Butler said.

“The biggest goal is to get more voice in the conversation with these (of King and Abernathy),” she said.

In addition to the tapes, which include remarks by Johns Island activist Esau Jenkins and his granddaughter Jackie Gimball, the collection contains photographs of King and his entourage, the equipment Sloan used to make the audio recordings, photographs of the Klan rally and Sloan’s medium format Hasselblad. camera.

On one of the tapes, listeners can hear KKK Great Dragon Robert Scoggin at a meeting in Ravenel calling for King’s assassination, followed by sounds of approval from those gathered that evening.

King, on the contrary, condemned the violence in his half-hour speech. In response to the urban riots, he told his audience that setting fire to property within their communities was counterproductive. Better, he says, “build, baby build.”

Aaisha Haykal, head of Avery’s archive services, said the audio will eventually be made available online, possibly along with digital images of some of the other items.

A grant received a few years ago from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission helps fund digitization efforts. Another grant received this year from the Donnelley Foundation will help fund an oral history project that may overlap with the effort to create an exhibit that puts King’s address at its center.

Daron Calhoun, Avery’s outreach and public programming coordinator, and coordinator of the social and racial justice initiative, said securing the collection took a long time to be compelling. Staff insisted that the materials needed to be hosted in Charleston and that Avery could contextualize them in a way that involved the community as a whole.

Calhoun formed a nine-person curatorial committee to help identify, prioritize and curate exhibition projects, he said. The group includes professionals from museums and nonprofit organizations, city officials, community members, and student and faculty representatives.

The King project has risen to the top of the list of projects, although it could take a year or more to set up, Calhoun said.

“It’s going to take up the whole building,” he said.

About Elaine Morales

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