After years of grant application processes, file reconstruction and website organization, the Mississippi State University Libraries now house 269 of the Citizens’ Council Radio Forum as a part of their digitized recordings collection.
The Citizens’ Council, a political group founded on the basis of white supremacy, began in Mississippi following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
The Citizens’ Council Radio Forum ran from 1957 to 1966 and covered topics including civil rights, communism and segregation. The Citizens’ Council broadcasted their forums all around the country, and despite being difficult to study, the material played an important role in shaping the nation’s current social and political climate.
Ian Davis, an MSU doctoral student studying history, is among many historians who advocate the importance of researching such provocative groups for the purpose of understanding today’s political climate.
"In the case of the 1960s, the Citizens’ Council was actually a very big entity at the time. It wasn’t just a Southern group. It wasn’t just a white supremacist group," Davis said. "Their ambitions were national, and they actually had an office in D.C. For understanding why integration takes as long as it does and why there is a legacy of stiff resistance to it, one has to look at a group like the Citizens’ Council because they were at the forefront of things."
Davis previously encountered the Citizens’ Council Forum materials in special collections when working on his article analyzing the relationship between the Citizens’ Council and the right-wing media.
Though he was at first only analyzing the Citizens’ Council newspaper, the members of the department directed him to Stephanie Rolph’s transcriptions of the Forum, which helped him analyze a later and different phase of the Council. Davis said it is vital for university archivists to exist and continue to know, expand and digitize their collections in order for historians and other researchers to work effectively.
"The relationship between historians and library archivists is really critical because without them, without their knowledge of the archives, we can’t really do our jobs properly," Davis said.
The process of digitizing the Citizens’ Council Forum recordings began in April 2016, when university archivist Jessica Perkins-Smith discovered a new grant by the Council on Library and Information Resources called Recordings at Risk.
This $25,000 grant sought to preserve and digitize recordings that were at the risk of being lost due to physical degradation, among other reasons. Having studied the Citizens’ Council for her senior thesis at Millsaps College, Perkins-Smith’s mind immediately went to the over 400 Citizens’ Council Forum recordings.
"I knew that a lot of our civil rights collections and our collections related to the Jim Crowe era in Mississippi and are some of our most used collections. So, I knew that if I could make these tapes more accessible, they would be really valuable to researchers," Perkins-Smith said.
While the tapes had been transcribed and the transcriptions donated to special collections by MSU doctoral graduate and Millsaps College associate professor of history Stephanie Rolph, the physical tapes were not in good condition.
After sending the tapes for analysis at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the tapes were determined to be in a delicate state with some tapes already facing permanent damage. With the tapes analyzed and the grant application submitted, Perkins-Smith waited patiently until finally receiving the good news they had been chosen as one of the grant recipients.
"Mississippi State Libraries already has a really rich digital collection, and this is exciting to me that we are continuing to add to them," Perkins-Smith said. "We are excited and proud to have this addition."
Now, the tapes are easily accessible for people interested in studying the Citizens’ Council. Since the tapes have become available online, Perkins-Smith said they have received lots of positive feedback and hope to run analytics on the web page soon. She also hopes to one day find funding through other grant resources to digitize the remaining tapes in the collection.
"All of the Mississippi politicians and all of the national politicians that show up on the tapes were the ones we prioritized for digitization," Perkins-Smith said. "We also looked for subject areas our researchers tend to be interested in when prioritizing which tapes to digitize."
Dr. James Giesen, an MSU associate professor in history and Grisham Master Teacher, said digitization plays a vital role in helping researchers across the nation perform their research effectively and economically.
"The great thing about the digitization grant is that you don’t have to be Stephanie Rolph, who just asks around and figures out that these tapes are over there," Giesen said. "Now, theoretically, anyone in the world can have access to these tapes because they are digitized."