UMD, Georgia State to Digitize Records Linking Labor and Civil Rights Movements

A $380,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), secured by University of Maryland Libraries and Georgia State University Library, will fund a three-year project to digitize records on the labor movement’s connections to the civil rights movement.

2 Black women, 1 Black man in front of AFL-CIO Black Lives Matter poster
The large banners on the AFL-CIO headquarters, located on BLM Plaza, became a space for protesters to take selfies documenting and celebrating participation in the movement.

A $380,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), secured by University of Maryland (UMD) Libraries and Georgia State University (GSU) Library, will fund a three-year project to digitize records on the labor movement’s connections to the civil rights movement.

“Advancing Workers Rights in the American South: Digitizing the Records of the AFL-CIO’s Civil Rights Division” will provide online access to records of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Civil Rights Southeast Division and national-level records from the AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department.

“The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was a great motivation for this project,” said Ben Blake, social justice and labor archivist at UMD. “Beginning six days after the murder of George Floyd through this January, I participated in 27 racial justice events in DC, mostly at Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House and the AFL-CIO headquarters building. As an archivist documenting these historic events as they happened, I took hundreds of videos and photos and collected over 200 t-shirts, posters, banners, buttons, and other artifacts related to the movement.”

The grant, awarded through CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program, will enable the creation of an exhibition along with complementary campus, traveling, and online exhibits that will compare the current BLM movement with the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s through the 1970s documented in the historical AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department Records. UMD will contribute its collection of textual materials, photographs, and films that showcase the AFL-CIO’s national work from the 1940s to the early 2000s.

Lisa Vallen, GSU’s southern labor archivist, initiated the digitization of the southern division of the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department more than two years ago. GSU’s Special Collections and Archives invited UMD’s Special Collections and University Archives to join the project in the fall to broaden the scope to records from the national AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department. To oversee and execute the digitization, GSU and UMD will hire a library technical assistant from GSU, who will work with support from student assistants.

Although cost and resource restraints will limit the process to digitizing only about one quarter of the collection, more than 57,000 pages of text will be digitized, including documents about voting rights, fighting discrimination on the job, opposition to segregation, and equality in education, and material from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In addition, 20 16 mm documentary films produced by the labor movement dating back to the 1950s will be digitized. Vendors with expertise in transferring 16 mm film to digital formats will be employed to do the work. UMD’s Special Collections and Archives Library has previously digitized and posted two historic labor produced civil rights documentaries, To Dream and Freedom Ride, which can be viewed on YouTube.

Vallen expanded on what the collection includes: “The AFL-CIO Civil Rights Southeast Department records contain correspondence, reports, surveys, statements, newspaper clippings, printed materials, minutes, agendas, writings, conference materials, news articles, newsletters, brochures, conference agendas, photographs, speech transcripts, and proposals that cover AFL-CIO, coalition building, civil rights, education, employment practices, statistics, unions, politics, complaints, grievances, and affirmative action.” (To get a deeper sense of UMD’s contribution, visit the online collection guide to over 125 linear feet of the civil rights–related material in the AFL-CIO collection.)

b&w photo of man interviewing Martin Luther King standing on picket line
Image from the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department Records depicts Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., picketing in support of striking workers at a Scripto writing pen factory in Atlanta, 1964.

Both Vallen and Blake highlighted the urgency of making this collection available to any person with internet access, not just scholars. “Today, we are witnessing an explosion of scholarly and public dialogue concerning labor and civil rights,” Vallen emphasized. “Our combined holdings will add to the dialogue, increasing public and scholarly awareness of these issues and finding footholds from which we can continue examining and acting to address them. Because the struggle for equality impacts all aspects of our society, these collections will provide primary source material for every scholarly discipline.”

Blake added, “This means that students of all ages, from grade school to PhD candidates, will be able to view original key documents about the links between the labor and the civil rights movements.”

The project will benefit a wide range of researchers, from high school students to workers to tenured professors. Blake concluded, “My hope is that the current generation of young activists will take advantage of this new access to explore the roots of past organizing in order to be more effective freedom fighters for racial justice today.”

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