Oral History Production of the Civil Rights Movement

Oral History Production of the Civil Rights Movement (one semester, junior/ senior)

Course Description

Students conduct face-to-face recorded interviews with elders who experienced civil rights-related actions and then publish their work for use by researchers around the world. The current topic explores the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, with emphasis on Mississippi. Students study the methods of oral history through action-oriented research, interview strategies, and related exposure to issues of trauma, aging, and memory. Students also learn digital video techniques, editing, documentary film creation, and web-page publishing. Students join a growing consortium of schools involved in civil rights-focused oral history production, including schools in San Francisco, Seattle, and southern Mississippi. The course builds on prior student work exemplified at Telling Their Stories: Oral History Archives Project - www.tellingstories.org.

Within the realm of possibility: Students may join an oral history expedition to southern Mississippi to interview witnesses whose stories have never been documented.

Prerequisite: None; this is a fourth-year history open elective (juniors may enroll)


This highlights the general expectations and key assignments - more details will be provided as we move through the semester.

  1. Publicness of Work — A key premise of the course is to make PUBLIC most of the work completed in order to provide insight to others studying the Civil Rights Movement throughout the world for years to come. Therefore, you are not producing work for yourself, or for your teacher, or for your classmates – you are producing work for the world, and, with your name attached.

  2. Stewardship of Oral Histories — the work you complete involving the sensitive stories of elders has real meaning to them, to their families, and to their legacy. You will take the utmost care to assure quality, completeness, and accuracy.

  3. Film Notes — the course relies heavily on documentary films as the main source of background history. You will complete and turn in Film Viewing Notetaking Guides for all viewed films.

  4. Film Reflections — students will also post public reflections designed as prompts to provoke further thinking by any student viewing these same films.

  5. Book Review — students will choose 1 prior-approved book to thoroughly read and write a public review with the purpose of guiding future student use, i.e., the audience will be other grade 7-12 students. Students will present their progress and insights to the class throughout the term.

  6. Analysis and Study Guide of Existing Oral History – students will choose one of the civil rights-related interviews conducted by students or teachers currently published at Telling Their Stories www.tellingstories.org/mccomb and produce a public study guide to enhance future use. This will also involve attempts to contact the interviewee or his/her family to extract further insights.

  7. Capstone Project: Lead a Video-based Oral History — including finding, inviting, and securing agreement from an elder interviewee; conducting background research, preparing a line of questioning, and taking the interview lead of a 1-2+ hour interview to be published on the Internet.

  8. Final Creative Project — likely working with partners, each team will produce a public documentary or other creative multimedia projects that celebrates or commemorates the oral history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Evaluation and Grading

This is nearly a 100% project-based course and therefore all evaluation and grading will be based on the student’s contributions and completing the mostly public work described above. As such, the current plan is for no formal tests or quizzes. Note: students must complete all required work in order to receive a passing grade.

Summary of Production Steps

Phase I - Background History of the Civil Rights Movement

The first weeks are spent examining the history in more detail, preparing for the more independent research phase that follows.

Phase II - Oral History Technique

Students are trained in oral interview techniques using a model of inquiry focusing on extracting the subjects personal story, rather than an attempt to document all details. Expert training in interview techniques is provided by experienced interviewers and guest experts. Students are also trained to use digital video equipment to record and later edit their interviews. Students will use their personal laptop computers throughout the course to aid note-taking organization, historical research, and the final editing and creation of their Web-based project.

Phase III - Identifying Interviewees (“witness”) & Initial Non-Taped Pre-Interview

Students will find and secure a witness by building a relationship prior to the formal taped interview. Working in small research teams, students conduct an initial non-taped interview with their assigned subject, lasting approximately 1-1/2 hours. Basic personal data is recorded which then guides both their follow-up research as well as the final taped interview. This initial interview also helps establish a personal rapport between the students and the subject, a critical component helping both parties feel comfortable resulting in a more successful and informative taped interview. A general release form is presented to the witness at this time granting the school the right to publish the subject's story on the Internet.

Phase IV - Research and Preparation

Students conduct independent research specific to the history and personal story of their witness. The goal during this phase is to build a strong background of knowledge to both facilitate good questioning as well as to help students attend and understand their subject's story. A variety of sources are used under the guidance of the teachers, the school librarians, and other experts identified to support student researchers.

Phase V - Taped Interview

Each interview team travels to the subject's home (or other arranged location), accompanied by the teachers, and conducts a taped interview lasting approximately 2 hours. Filming equipment is simple, with a camera on a tripod, an extra fill-light, and microphones.

Phase Vb - Second "Follow-up" Interview

During the second year of the project, a new team of students may conduct a second round of taped interviews with the same subjects as during the previous year. Each new student team studies the work of the previous year's students including all notes, the initial Pre-Interview, and most importantly, the text and movies from the previous year. They also conduct further background research. These "Follow-up" interviews build upon the testimonies from the previous year, resulting in a much more complete oral history.

Phase VI - Editing and Production

Students spend the final few weeks completing their project with the goal of creating a series of Internet Web pages containing primary source documentation of their subject's story. Each project is composed of paired transcription and movie files. Viewers on the final website are able to read, watch and listen to the complete set of interview answers. Students may also enhance their project with hypertext links to other relevant historical information as it appears within their subject's story.