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Bill Aims to Collect Civil Rights Stories

Since its creation in 2000, the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project has collected some 45,000 stories from those who served in America’s wars.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) is hoping to do the same for individuals who participated in the civil rights movement.

She recently reintroduced legislation, H.Res. 998, that would direct the Library and the Smithsonian (through its to-be-constructed National Museum of African American History and Culture) to collect the personal histories of those who worked to promote equal rights for black Americans, focusing on the years 1954 to 1968.

“We lose more and more each year,” said George Burke, McCarthy’s press secretary, pointing to the recent deaths of such civil rights icons as Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. But Burke added: “It doesn’t have to be people like Martin Luther King Jr. … it could be just an individual who took part in a march.”

Modeled on the Veterans History Project, McCarthy’s measure — known as the Civil Rights History Project Act of 2007 — would authorize the Librarian of Congress and the secretary of the Smithsonian to both survey existing civil rights oral histories and to solicit and collect video and audio recordings of stories from movement participants, as well as other visual and written materials. These would then be owned jointly by the two institutions, available for use in future possible exhibitions at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other black history museums around the country.

While the bill encourages the two entities to raise private funds for the project, it also would authorize $500,000 in fiscal 2008 and beyond that “such sums as may be necessary” through fiscal 2012. The legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a key civil rights leader, has been referred to the House Administration Committee. McCarthy’s office, which currently is working to identify a Senate sponsor, is optimistic that the bill’s chances have improved with the new Democratic majority.

This is hardly the first effort aimed at ensuring that the stories of the civil rights movement and black Americans are preserved for future generations. Earlier this month, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the nonprofit organization StoryCorps kicked off a year-long initiative to record ordinary black Americans’ stories — which will be sent to the Library. In 2004, the AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Library collaborated on the “Voices of Civil Rights” project, which included collecting the oral histories — deposited at the Library — of those who participated in the movement. And the Veterans History Project also has spotlighted the contributions of America’s black military personnel.

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