Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress during the opening weekend of the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Certainly it was inspiring to learn so much about the work of activists, politicians, and everyday people; but it also left me feeling a real grief for our country, that such a thing could have ever taken place here.  And yet it is in having an exchange – a conversation – about this history that may keep us from repeating it.

Studs Terkel understood the power that words and conversation have to affect not only our daily experiences, but the history we choose to make both personally and nationally.  In the conversations I listened to while preparing this collage, Terkel bears witness to the challenges that face underdogs of every stripe, and invites us to do the same.  He asks Muhammad Ali what it was like to read about Emmett Till’s death in the newspaper, when Ali was just a child himself; he talks to a young Puerto Rican activist about his struggles with the local alderman; and he listens to Maya Angelou recall seeing children speak disrespectfully toward her grandmother because she was Black and they were white.

Like the exhibit at the Library of Congress, Terkel’s conversations about civil rights simultaneously reveal the best and worst of human behavior; but through it all, he never loses heart.  He is obviously inspired by the stories he hears; and his speakers’ words, hopeful or heartbreaking, flow clearly through my laptop speakers, as potent as when he first recorded them.

Order of clips:  Pete Seeger; Maya Angelou (reading an excerpt from “When I Think About Myself”); Peter Sellars; three selections from the 1969 “Fiesta: A Chicago Happening” in Lincoln Park (male resident, Terkel, female resident); William Bradford Huie; Charles V. Hamilton; Muhammad Ali; Dr. Neil Sullivan; Terkel and Ali; friend of Paul Robeson at a tribute event; Myles Horton; Terkel and Rosa Parks; John D. Weaver; Daniel Berrigan, S.J.; Pete Seeger (singing).

Thank you to Allison Schein and Sophia Feddersen for their help in building this collage.

-Grace Radkins, Archive Assistant

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