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Hear Dozens of Interviews with Civil Rights Activists at Vanderbilt's Digital Archive

On the Kentucky side of the border along Tennessee sits a little railroad town named Guthrie, the home of the nation's first poet laureate and three-time Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren, known as "Red" Warren, born in 1905. During the Civil Rights Movement, Warren wrote a book titled Who Speaks for the Negro? featuring interviews with activists like Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others. For nearly a decade, these interviews have been available online for listening. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte learns more about the digital archive from Mona Frederick, Executive Director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.

Mona Frederick says the project began when she learned that the original reel to reel tapes of his interviews for the book existed at the Yale library. She thought it'd be a great project to digitize the tapes and make them available to people. The tapes had been split between its home at Yale and the library at the University of Kentucky, so she reunited the collection in her online project. There's been a great response, she says, with users around the world accessing the interviews. Since this project, Yale has also republished Warren's book, which had been out of print for several decades.

What's interesting about the conversations, Frederick says, is that they were recorded in 1964, before we knew what the outcome of the Civil Rights Movement would be. Also, she says listening to them feels like you're in the room with Warren and his subject. She recalls the "heated" conversation with Malcolm X in which the windows were open and you can hear the honking of cars, voices shouting and dogs barking. When we listen to recordings of Martin Luther King Jr., often they're of his grand orations, but in his interview with Warren, you get a rare opportunity to hear him just talking in normal conversation.

One of Frederick's favorite conversations is with Claire Collins Harvey, an African American woman who owned both a funeral home and insurance company. She lived in Mississippi when the Freedom Riders came through and organized a group of women to take care packages to the civil rights activists imprisoned. There aren't many interviews with women in Robert Penn Warren's recordings, but they break stereotypes, Frederick says: the women involved were very well educated and well traveled and knew what they were involved with.

The legacy of Robert Penn Warren among scholars is often debated, she says. He was born in Guthrie, Kentucky, a place that 90 years later made national headlines for a murder involving the display of a Confederate Flag. Warren's grandfather fought for the Confederates in the Civil War. He was active in a literary group at Vanderbilt called "The Fugitives and the Agrarians," which often promoted the viewpoint of protecting the South from industrialization and from northern influence. Some see their defense of agrarianism as a defense of the 'Old South' and the embedded racism. Warren was a part of this group and wrote an essay called "The Briar Patch", in which he made a then progressive argument about separate but equal education for blacks and whites.

Frederick says Warren is an example of the evolution of an intellectual because has he moved away and gained more education he realized his earlier writings were racist. He joined the NAACP in 1948 and when he wrote the book Who Speaks for the Negro? he included in the preface that it was a penance for his early work as a writer. She says we have to give great thanks to Warren for his gifts as a writer and for recording these conversations with 46 men and women in the Civil Rights Movement.

Hear the interviews and read the transcripts at the "Who Speaks for the Negro?" Digital Archive at the website of Vanderbilt University's Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, where Mona Frederick is the Executive Director.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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