I came to the Schomburg Center to learn more about—and really to visualize—how the children of the civil rights era of the late 1950s and early 1960s became the young adults who, by the late 1960s, were wearing afros, raising fists, talking about Black power and revolution and taking over university buildings to demand changes.
I began with the extensive Malcolm X collection, since he was one of the earliest outspoken proponents of radical Black pride that this generation would have heard first hand. I quickly learned why some historians call the youth of the Black Power movement “Malcolm’s children.” In the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division (MARB), I read handwritten and typed drafts of his speeches, dating from 1960, where he prophetically declared what would become a cultural phenomenon after his death. At a rally against police brutality in 1961, he said, “this so-called Negro that you used to regard as a little boy… has grown up overnight, and is standing before you today, everywhere, as a fearless man.” His critiques of the goals and terms of integration and of the participation of white liberals in the movement were fascinating to read. In the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division (MIRS), I watched documentaries about Malcolm X from the years and decades after his death, which confirmed my suspicion that once a person heard Malcolm X speak, they were forced to forever see their own ideas in a new light.
Reading Malcolm X’s handwritten notes and seeing out-takes from his television appearances was a powerful experience. His contributions to Black culture and thought have taken on mythic proportions. To see this thinker and speaker as a person who could be shy, who had to collect his thoughts before espousing them with such passion, and who stayed honest by changing his focus and amending his statements when new truths were revealed to him, showed me that he was more than a legend: he was a courageous and hard-working man.
Reluctantly, I moved on from the Malcolm X collection and spent more time in MARB reading the civil rights collections of several personalities who were active in the movement. In Ella Baker’s files, I saw period papers from the March on Washington, such as handbills and programs, as well as extensive documentation from the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC papers and other student conference papers, which I also found in other MARB collections, offered insight into the development and transformations in the movement’s leadership, methods, thought and goals. This was the generation that formed Black student unions at predominantly white colleges, and challenged HBCUs to develop their own agendas instead of pandering to white liberal funders. The documents allowed me to tap into the excitement and determination, as well as the challenges, of these dynamic times.
In the Research and Reference Division, I read archival newspaper clippings on a number of subjects to establish how events and topics were reported, from the bombings in Birmingham, Alabama, to the speech and actions of figures like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown; from discrimination in New York State to the programs of the Black Panthers.
One of the most memorable experiences was listening to Defining Black Power in MIRS. This three CD set is a compilation of speeches by figures including Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and more. Each speech approaches the subject of Black liberation, equality, justice and power from a different angle. Together, they create a mosaic of thought that shows what a wealth of creative energy went into the cultural transformations that took place during that era.
Archival papers, audio, video, clippings, conference programs, photographs—each invaluable, these many pieces come together to forge not just knowledge but understanding. In the Center he founded, Arturo Schomburg’s mission is carried on in capable and helpful hands.
© Autumn Allen 2019