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Project South: How eight students chased the history of the civil rights movement

The speed of sound is too slow for time travel. But then you hear her voice.

“My name is Fannie Lou Hamer,” she says, “and I exist at 626 East Lafayette St. in Ruleville, Mississippi.”

She speaks in a Southern twang, in which words like “butter” lose their “r”s and “husband” sounds as if it contains three “z”s. Fifty-three years ago, Stanford students placed an open-reel tape recorder in front of her. On tape, Hamer’s words still ring out with richness and conviction today.

“I think as much of these children as I do my own kids,” she said, referring to the student activists who came to the South to join the efforts of the civil rights movement.“I’m fightin’ for all human bein’s to make this a great country for all of us,” she said.

Hamer wasn’t making a speech at a podium.  She was answering questions that drew students to the soupy heat of a Mississippi summer in 1965, where the civil rights movement was in midlife. An Uher 4000 Report open-reel tape recorder sat alongside her, catching her words as they rolled into the air.

Audio of Hamer is rare. The civil rights activist often did not speak from notes, so if a recording device was not around to hear her speak, her words vaporized into the sultry heat. But at least in this setting, magnetic tape collected her words like an adhesive.

Hamer launched her career in civil rights activism three years earlier, in a church on a Monday night in 1962. It was there that she first learned that it was her constitutional right to vote, and from then on, she dedicated her life to fighting against literacy tests and poll taxes that kept African Americans from the ballot box. She suffered arrest, brutal police beatings and a drive-by shooting for her efforts.

None of this stopped Hamer from founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. At the Democratic National Convention, her political party challenged the contemporary Mississippian political establishment that remained exclusive to whites.

Chasing history in real time, two Stanford students on a team of eight lugged the six-pound, Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder to her house. Thanks to their journey, students and researchers over half a century later can hear Fannie Lou Hamer speak in intimacy.

———

In the fall of 1964, Jim McRae ’67, then a sophomore at Stanford, admired and envied the few people he knew who had traveled to the South. As the chief recording engineer for campus radio station KZSU, he worked four to five hours a week setting up microphones and recording campus events. But he knew that the civil rights work of the past summer was important and that it exceeded the bounds of his campus life.

During what was later known as “Freedom Summer,” student activists, white and black, worked to help black voter registration in the South. With the aim of aiding the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 40 to 50 Stanford students drove to Mississippi to help with this effort alone.

“The choice to go South is the most direct and complete way of expressing a commitment — a commitment to a dream called American democracy that is yet to be realized,” wrote a Daily columnist in 1964.

McRae did not consider himself an activist — that change would happen later. Still, he was curious to know: What went through the minds of student activists who went to the South? What thoughts did they have as they navigated hatred and helped dismantle Jim Crow law?

A New Jersey native, McRae initially thought Stanford to be a liberal place. In New Jersey, Rockefeller Republicans dominated the state — people who were progressive on social issues, but conservative on fiscal ones. They agreed with the goals of the movement but hesitated at the civil rights movement’s efforts to picket and hold demonstrations.

But for McRae, the idea that some Americans could not vote due to Jim Crow laws lacked sense. Like the students who had already traveled to the South, he, too, felt an itch to be in the midst of it all. He had traveled to the South only once — to Florida — with his family.

“I didn’t know the South,”  McRae said.

———

Hal Williams ’65, then a senior and former station manager of KZSU, and Ralph Peer ’66, a junior and the station manager at the time, put together the team of eight Stanford students who would travel to the South in the fall and winter of 1964. The eight agreed to follow history as it unfolded.

“Our view was that the work in voter registration was happening at a rampant pace,” Williams said. “All of this could go up into the air unless there was a way to document it.”

Interviewing people, operating Uher Report 4000s and making documentaries for radio are KZSU’s trade. Earlier that year, the KZSU team, led by Williams, produced a piece that investigated the case of a Stanford student who had been suspended from the school while studying in Florence. Williams and his team saw recording activists’ thoughts during the civil rights movement as important work too. As students themselves, they figured that they could capture other students’ motivations to travel to the South better than anyone else. They aimed to produce a radio series about student activism in the South that they could broadcast to all colleges and radio stations, said McRae.

The students, including McRae, took a course on interviewing and how to collect information from a sociology professor at Stanford in the spring. At the start of summer of 1965, they outfitted a VW minibus and turned it into a mini-recording studio. McRae and Mark Dalrymple ’67, another student, planned to use the minibus to check in with other groups, repair tape recorders if needed and edit the tapes as they were made. The other six drove out in pairs.

The bulky Uher Report 4000 fit into the glove compartment, a perfect place to hide it in case the police stopped them to ask what they were doing. Hal, having a prior commitment to work at the Aspen Institute, came for the first week to help the eight settle in for their expedition — what they would later call Project South.

Their first stop was Mississippi.

———

The first night, McRae and the group stayed together in a church in Tougaloo, Mississippi. The church was filled with civil rights activists, SNCC members, out-of-state college students and sleeping bags. McRae could hear angry, white passersby throw garbage at the church. What distinguished them from the other Northerners, they thought, were their cumbersome, six-pound tape recorders. They were not activists but journalists who were there to document events.

A few days later, after Williams left for the Aspen Institute, the group split off into pairs — each with a car that they had driven out to the South and armed with a Uher 4000. For a few weeks, McRae and Dalrymple stayed behind, as planned, wandering to civil rights events in the VW bus. It was better to keep the bus moving. The inside of the VW, amid the humid soupy heat of the South, baked those — researchers and tapes alike — inside.

McRae and Dalrymple visited the other three crews periodically, one in Mississippi, one in Alabama and one in Louisiana, to see if the other groups needed supplies or repairs. To their surprise, despite the heat, dust and dirt in the South, the tape recorders held up well. But it was too hot to edit the tapes that they were able to retrieve. Carefully cutting magnetic tape on the diagonal and then connecting the ends with a small piece of scotch tape required nimble, dry fingers. They would have to wait to edit the tapes until they returned to Stanford.

A couple of weeks into the trip, McRae left the VW bus and traded places with another team member so he could team up with Richard Gillam ’65 Ph.D. ’72, an interviewer.

———

For 10 weeks, the pairs drove to towns in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, looking first to set up shop at a local Freedom House, which was usually the landmark of the black side of town. For each house that they entered, McRae and Gillam told the black folk there that they were from Stanford and were developing a radio series on student involvement in the Southern civil rights movement. The locals and student activists readily welcomed them, feeding McRae and Gillam the typical Southern fare. McRae didn’t like chitlins, but he learned to like collard greens.

Having a car proved to be a helpful resource. For the first few days during their visits, McRae and Gillam drove people to register to vote and chauffeured children to swimming pools. They bought supplies and tended to their hosts’ requests. After two or three days, they would pull out their tape recorders and microphones and interview everyone they could.

“We were doing civil rights work half the time and talking to people who were doing even more of it,” McRae said.

———

In Tougaloo, the word was that Northerners from Stanford had come to “agitate the Negroes.” A few times, white Mississippians spotted McRae and Gillam walking along the road and threw trash out their car windows at the students as they sped by. McRae feared that the white folk would turn around for another round, or worse, confront them physically. The previous year, three civil rights activists, one from Mississippi and two from the North, had been kidnapped in Neshoba County. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were later found in an earthen dam.

Still, McRae was in awe of the people who put their lives on the line. The group, in total, recorded about 300 hours of tape over those 10 weeks, including oral histories (in particular, one with Charles Evers), proceedings of student meetings and speeches by Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams and Martin Luther King, Jr. They even captured a speech made by the Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton, of the Ku Klux Klan at a 40-foot cross burning. As Shelton ranted on a flat-bed truck, McRae and Gillam watched by the press section with their recorders on moonlit grass.  

———

The Stanford Eight dispersed at summer’s end. Williams graduated that spring, and everyone else started the year with other commitments. McRae took over as project coordinator for Project South.

But the effort — of distilling 300 hours of tape into a miniseries to broadcast on KZSU — proved difficult. Even worse, classes, palm trees and papers no longer seemed relevant to McRae. “I wanted to drop out of school,” McRae said.

But KZSU negotiated a deal with McRae: They would pay for half of his tuition so that he would continue the project. He recruited a team of transcribers from solicitations in the The Daily to transfer the interviews to paper from sound. They typed away on typewriters in a small office in the Old Union, working on the project over several months.

The tapes were transcribed, and KZSU produced a few shows based off of them, as planned.  But to their dismay, the KZSU shows “dropped like a stone,” according to McRae. Few Stanford students seemed to care about the civil rights movement anymore; their concerns had moved to escalating Vietnam War protests and sit-ins. “We all thought we basically failed in some way because we came up with three radio shows, half-hour radio shows, but we wanted to come up with a whole series that we would [broadcast] to all colleges and radio stations,” McRae said.

Discouraged, McRae and the other students donated the tapes to the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound. There, the reel-to-reel tapes reposed in obscurity for decades.

———

Davis Houck cannot remember where he found the tapes in 2014, but he did.

Houck, a professor at Florida State University, found the words “Project South” cited in a footnote, in a book that he cannot recall. He had researched Fannie Lou Hamer for over a decade, but in that time found that few primary sources related much beyond the mundane facts of her life. Business papers and mail, the majority of which were not intimate correspondences, revealed little about who she was.

But the sound of her voice drums with the fortitude that she lived by.

“I don’t ever try to fight for equal rights cause I’m fighting for all human beings,” she says on the tape. “‘[Negroes] have less to hide than any race in America.”

Hamer ran for Congress in Mississippi but lost after calling national attention to civil rights at the Democratic convention of 1964. After that, she helped assemble the National Women’s Political Caucus in the 1970s and worked to increase business opportunities for minorities. Twelve years later, in 1977, Hamer died of breast cancer at age 59.

Houck initially found Hamer’s words on microform, in the basement of Florida State’s main library. Tiny pale images of the transcriptions that McRae and his team typed out looped around several reels.

Houck called Stanford, because they held the tapes. Maggie Kimball ’80, the University archivist at the time, had made it a top priority to digitize the tapes, which were at risk for continued deterioration. After she left, her replacement, Daniel Hartwig, took up the charge to make them available online. Hartwig could send Hamer’s voice to Houck with just a few mouse clicks and a drag.

Luckily, the tapes hadn’t been edited in the Mississippi summer heat that might have degraded the splices and made Hamer’s voice hiccup. Houck quickly composed emails to the Project South students, grateful for what he found.

———

Thirteen minutes into the tape, audio cuts into the roundness of Hamer’s voice like glass shards.

But seconds later, the audio strips the overlay and Hamer’s voice resoundingly returns. For a documentary set to premiere in 2019, the group FLH America will use the tape to tell Hamer’s life in her own voice.

Six of the Project South students met near Stanford after Houck emailed them. Dalrymple and team member Julie Wells had married. She had been the one with whom McRae switched cars midway through the trip. After that summer, McRae had gone back to the South, this time, to Troy, Alabama, to work as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. He was invigorated by his trip with Project South.

Fannie Lou Hamer’s voice, among other sounds of the moment, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Evers and James Farmer’s, transcend space and time. They travel from our ears via Stanford’s online library, on permanent URL links. Peeled from the laminate of black magnetic tape, their voices survive history, living in the cloud.

 

Contact Eliane Mitchell at elianem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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