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What Do We Forget When We Remember History?

A white heckler arrested during an anti-segregation demonstration in Lexington, Ky., is hustled into a police car in August 1963. Forty years later, the <em>Lexington Herald-Leader</em> ran a correction apologizing for the newspaper's lack of coverage of the civil rights movement.
A white heckler arrested during an anti-segregation demonstration in Lexington, Ky., is hustled into a police car in August 1963. Forty years later, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran a correction apologizing for the newspaper's lack of coverage of the civil rights movement.

Over the summer Code Switch has been live tweeting events from 50 years ago as though they were just now unfolding. We hoped to bring our audience the look and feel of that era in a way that complemented the anniversary stories we've been doing all year.

In our first editorial meetings about the project we wondered, Will there be enough material? No doubt it had been a summer full of heroic acts and simple, powerful protest, but what we were most familiar with were the summer's major characters and moments: the events in Birmingham, Medgar Evers' killing, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys, the March on Washington. What about those moments in between? What would we "cover"? What would we link to?

If you know the history of that summer you won't be surprised to learn that there was plenty to choose from. Historical events become compressed in the retelling, leaving out the minor characters and moments that made great figures who they were. Every day as I looked at headlines in the news archives I found some of those moments.

By some counts, those three months of summer saw over a thousand protests. Updates like these from UPI, summarizing events as far apart as Kansas City, Mo., and Stamford, Conn., were fairly typical.

It was an enormous movement with many parts, and there was copious newspaper coverage to link to. Right away it seemed we had started leaving a lot of compelling stories out of the feed. So what about that granularity? Say for a minute we had included all of those stories — even small newspapers that weren't digitally archived — would even that have been faithful to the experience?

It seemed like a question for a historian. I asked William Chafe, professor of history at Duke University, about the time. He told me about a movement that was driven by the actions of individuals all around the country, more than any one leader. And the story of that movement was one many white-owned newspapers weren't interested in telling.

Take Greensboro, N.C., as an example. (Chafe wrote about the city in his book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, N.C., and the Struggle for Black Freedom.) This was the place where four young men who were enrolled at North Carolina A&T first conceived of the sit-in as a form of protest. (Many years later, the Smithsonian removed a piece of the former Woolworth's counter where the sit-in occurred to add to the permanent collection.)

"Oh, we didn't have a reporter on that," former Greensboro Daily News reporters told Chafe when he asked about the paper's coverage of the civil rights movement. A similar response came when he asked them who they thought the leaders of the black community were at the time. (Keep in mind that this place gave rise to Jesse Jackson.) "That gives you an idea of how ignorant the white press was," Chafe said.

These types of omissions are well-noted. After my conversation with Chafe I remembered the clarification run by the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader 40 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It read, "It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. ... We regret the omission."

As Audie Cornish told us earlier this summer, what did get printed in Southern papers was often written by outsiders and printed in the back pages.

So then we come back to @todayin1963, and our effort to re-create the daily drama that people at the time felt. We had found very quickly that there was more than enough for daily mention. Many details and plot lines were even left out of our telling. Still, there was something even greater missing from the story.

Journalism is often referred to as "the first draft of history." In this case, that draft was incomplete. In some places it was grotesquely warped by the prejudice of newspaper owners and writers. In others, it simply failed to capture the stories of those who were not major characters — at least, not with any detail. The result is a record that, as fascinating as it is, doesn't come close to including the innumerable important moments that made up the summer of 1963.

Fifty years from now, when researchers scour through tweets and other reports from our times, I wonder if the unprecedented detail will help them understand the story. What will they see? What will they miss?

JoElla Straley is a librarian at NPR and one of the curators of the @TodayIn1963 Twitter feed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

JoElla Straley
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