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Voices of Civil Rights

February is African-American History month: a chance for people of all races to remember or learn about events that shaped the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and exposed the horrors of racism. The era of struggle by millions of African-Americans and their supporters ultimately created changes in laws requiring school desegregation, voting rights for blacks and equal access to public facilities once used exclusively by white Americans.

Fifty years ago the civil rights movement in the United States, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., captivated the world and inspired millions of African-Americans to take part in non-violent protests for racial equality and justice. There were peaceful demonstrations in mostly southern communities where segregation was a way of life. Protesters held marches and picketed outside stores and restaurants that refused service to blacks. They also called for an end to racial killings and the establishment of federal laws to protect black citizens and give them the right to vote.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was determined. "I will not rest until we are able to make this kind of witness in this city so that the power structure downtown will have to say, "We cannot stop this movement and the only way to deal with it is to give these people what we owe them and what their God given rights and their constitutional rights demand," said Dr. King.

Sometimes the civil rights demonstrations turned violent. White segregationists often confronted blacks while police beat and arrested thousands of protesters.

Decades later, Georganne Thomas, from Atlanta, Georgia, who marched in the 1960s, recalls painful memories of racial hatred. "When I went downtown to march in front of Rich's Department store this guy burned me with a cigarette. I had a cigarette burn and I could not do anything about it because we were non-violent and we could not respond but he burned me and I have never forgotten it and I can feel it to this day," said Georganne.

Birdie England, from Atlanta, has vivid memories of efforts to desegregate public transportation there. "I got chastised by my teacher because she was saying it was a dangerous thing that I did because at that particular time because blacks were not allowed to ride in the front of the bus," said Birdie.

Birdie England and Georganne Thomas are publicly telling their stories for the first time. Since last year thousands of people have taken part in a year-long, nation-wide history project aimed at collecting the largest archive of firsthand accounts of the civil rights struggle.

The project is called Voices of Civil Rights. It began last September with a 70-day, 35-city bus tour to communities that were flashpoints during the civil rights movement. With newly constructed backdrops to resemble lunch counters and front porches of homes, volunteers interviewed ordinary people who took part in the movement. They collected and recorded more than 4,000 stories from the 1950s and 60s.

"It was the ordinary people who got out and did the grunt work that made the difference. We had people that sat and did the strategy for us but we were the ones who got out and marched in the sun and worked hard, worked overtime and it is important that the students know that the names that did not make the news did not mean that the people who were out there marching were not as important as the people who made the news," said Georganne.

The audio and video tape recordings of civil rights participants are being held in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Ernest Arceneaux coordinated efforts to collect the stories. "We usually hear about the icons in the civil rights movement, we do not hear about the everyday person, the foot soldier who participated individually. Collectively people made quite a contribution to the activities of the civil rights movement which changed the fabric of American life as we know it today," said Ernest.

Reverend Gloria Wright was one of those people. She was only 16 when she became involved in the civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia. She and dozens of her friends were arrested and jailed for protesting. "I went to jail four times, the longest I stayed in jail was four days and four nights. We would have racists who would shout, "Niggers be quiet" and then when we would not be quiet they would turn off the heat. But because we had each other it was not as horrifying as it could have been," said the Reverend.

Reverend Wright says recording the experiences of ordinary people who took part in the civil rights movement has inspired her to write a book about her experiences she hopes young people will read.

"How will our children know what their role is as it relates to civil rights if they do not know from where they have come. They need to know about the blood, sweat and tears that we have suffered and endured as the pioneers. I think it will be important for them to know that more than Dr. King and all of the others who were at the front of the line are important but those who were at the back of the line are very, very important," said Gloria Wright.

The people who organized the Voices of Civil Rights project say it's a memorial to those who lived through the harrowing times of America's civil rights movement and an important educational resource for future generations.