History buffs retracing Iowa's role in civil rights movement

"It turns out there was a lot of discrimination in Iowa"

Published: November 20 2013 | 4:30 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:47 pm in

The South was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, but issues of segregation as well as contributions during the pivotal time in American history happened here in Iowa.

While segregation was illegal in Iowa, some communities allowed it. There's stories of hotels not booking rooms to black guests, restaurants only serving black customers out the back, and white's only restrooms.

"It turns out there was a lot of discrimination in Iowa," said Patti Miller, 70, who was heavily involved in the 1960s movement. "A lot of the Jim Crow laws in the South were happening here, too."

Miller, of Fairfield, is part of a new group called the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network, a group of historians, archivists, librarians, activists and others from across Iowa. They come from the State Historical Society, the African American Museum of Iowa, Grinnell College and others.

The group, which met in Iowa City on Wednesday, is documenting Iowa's history in the civil rights era by collecting oral interviews, journals, photos, letters and any other memorabilia.

Miller, who has a project called Keeping History Alive, said she got involved because it is important not to repeat past mistakes. She cited the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and added that biases still exist and still shape decision making.

David McCartney, University of Iowa archivist, brought the group together through his research into Steve Smith, a student heavily involved in civil rights and anti-war activism. Smith, who died in 2009, suffered repercussions throughout his life from his activism, which included an arrest and beatings while volunteering to register black voters through the Mississippi Voter Project or Freedom Summer in 1964.

The 50-year anniversary of Mississippi's Freedom Summer, which is coming up next year, is the group's first big project. The group is working with American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

Miller, who was a music student at Drake University in 1964, was among 36 Iowans who volunteered for the 10-week program that summer. The group included 19 students, 14 teachers, two attorneys and a Christian layman, McCartney said.

Those volunteers were trained with how to deal non-violently with expected confrontations. The volunteers headed for Mississippi with the knowledge that three civil rights workers had disappeared.

On Miller's first day of work in Meridian, Miss., the bodies of the three civil rights workers were found. They had been killed by a lynch mob of Ku Klux Klan members. She worked in the same office as those workers. She described it as a "somber day" in which "reality set in" for what to expect that summer.

"When we heard they were missing, we knew we were in for a heated summer," Miller said, who has supported civil rights efforts throughout her life.

Brianna Wright, of the African American Museum, is participating in the group. She said the museum is planning a civil rights exhibit in 2015. 

"All of this is very relevant to what we do at the African American Museum," she said. 

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