Old Gold: UI's Rare Papers, Recordings Offer Glimpse into Civil Rights Struggle

By David McCartney
Hear audio recordings of Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and other pioneering activists from the Special Collections archive. Editor's note: In Old Gold, University Archivist David McCartney looks back at the UI's history and tradition through materials housed in University Archives, Department of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.
Eric Morton Photo from Eric Morton Civil Rights Papers. Eric Morton in Jackson, Mississippi, 1964.

Countless stories reside in the archives' collections. Sometimes the stories, significant and timeless, take on even more urgency in the wake of tragic events.

The Eric Morton Civil Rights Papers, for example, tell stories from nearly 60 years ago that resonate strongly today following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Old Gold first noted Eric Morton's papers in this column in 2018, three years after they arrived in the UI Libraries' Department of Special Collections. Since then, newly unearthed sound recordings in the collection reveal human experiences that all of us must hear and understand.

First, though, some background about this intriguing man.

During Freedom Summer in the South in 1964, Eric Morton had an important job to do. As materials coordinator for the voter registration project in Mississippi, he oversaw delivery of information flyers, registration forms, and other materials across the state, a risky and dangerous undertaking. At the time, less than 10 percent of Mississippi's adult Black residents were registered to vote, and attempting to do so meant intimidation, physical threats, and even violence perpetrated by white segregationists.

An African American man from Detroit, Morton (1934–2015) knew racism all too well in the country that he served as an enlisted member of the U.S. Armed Forces during the Korean War in the early 1950s. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in 1962, and for the next several years was on the front lines in the Deep South, participating in voter registration drives and other civil rights-related activity.

His papers bring to us the exhilaration and pain that the long civil rights movement meant to those who fought bravely for rights that, by any measure, should never have been denied in the first place.

One example is a letter Morton received from a family friend whom we know only as "Mrs. Roche," a letter written soon after Morton and UI student Steve Smith were detained by a posse near Canton, Mississippi, the night of July 15, 1964, while delivering materials to Greenwood, Mississippi:

Friday [July 17, 1964]
Dear Eric,
Please excuse this writing paper, but I am sure you will understand.
My ears have been glued to the radio listening to news and when I heard of trucks being stopped and workers being arrested on such ridiculous trumped up charges, my fears for you mounted. Then when Kathleen called and told us of your misfortune, my fears became a reality.
It just doesn't seem possible that such conditions could exist in a so-called civilized country. I hope and pray your work will become a reality very soon, not weeks, months, or years from now.
Do be careful, cautious, take care of yourself.
If you need anything, please let me know. I will try to do what I can.
I realize you are very busy, but I would like to hear from you.
Mrs. Roche 

Along with Mrs. Roche's letter in the collection are spoken words—words on audio recording tape—that bring to life the pain and courage of those advocating for change.

In 1963 and 1964, New York attorney Bob Zellner recorded a series of interviews with eight activists in Mississippi and Alabama on behalf of SNCC in an effort to document their experiences.

After the SNCC national office in Atlanta closed in 1966, Morton rescued the recording tapes, keeping them in his possession for decades until donating them to the UI Libraries in 2015. Included are interviews with Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper who founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and a young Stokely Carmichael, whose interview at age 22 may be the earliest known recording of him. Both recount the violence and threats they had recently experienced.

The Hamer, Carmichael, and other interviews are now online.

Old Gold was honored to meet Mr. Morton and receive his papers on behalf of the UI Libraries. That act of faith—entrusting one's papers to an institution—allows us to remember and reflect and renew. Especially now.

Read more University of Iowa history stories in our Old Gold archive.

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