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Historic civil rights voices still speak on faith-based website

By the Rev. Mike Hickcox

The Civil Rights era was at its peak in the late 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. American cities struggled with civil unrest. Police countered demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses.

But the greatest tools for change, even in the 1960s, were words—not bullets or fires or dogs, but powerful words. The greatest figures of the Civil Rights era were those who spoke and wrote the words that explained, that exhorted, that pleaded, that prayed. Many of those historic figures are now elderly; many have died. Many of their truly powerful voices are gone.

But a courageous and creative radio program of The United Methodist Church preserved those voices, and a current collaboration digitizes those old audiotapes, making the prophetic voices heard again. Ralph Abernathy, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin and Julian Bond can be heard anytime at no cost on SoundTheology.org, the website that makes these programs available to all.

You can hear the contemporaneous thoughts of Stokely Carmichael, Shirley Chisholm, Eldridge Cleaver and Ruby Dee thanks to a radio program called “Night Call” that United Methodist Communications created and ran in 1968-1969. “Night Call” originated at a studio at Riverside Church in New York City. When The Methodist Church first created “Night Call” in 1965, it was the first national call-in radio program in America. The church restarted the program in 1968 because of the turmoil of the Civil Right struggle, the ongoing war in Vietnam and turbulence in American society. This one-hour radio program, heard on scores of radio stations across the country, was live five nights a week, giving the nation a way to hold civil discussion, listening to varying points of view and learning how others thought and felt.

Host Del Shields and callers from across the country talked with Dick Gregory, Roy Innis, Jesse Jackson and A.D. King. The program benefited from the presence of Chester Lewis, Ralph McGill, Nina Simone and Andrew Young. These, and others in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, took the opportunity to discuss the issues and their solutions with Shields and the listeners across the country.

In addition, SoundTheology.org carries 21 interviews conducted by Pamela Crosby at a 2004 reunion of persons who were part of the Central Jurisdiction of The Methodist Church. These United Methodists grew up in the separate, Black annual conferences of the church that had been established in 1939 and continued until 1968. Among those interviewed are Gilbert Caldwell, James Feree, Joseph Lowery, Mai Gray, Leontine Kelly, Walter McKelvey, Forrest Stith and Barbara Ricks Thompson. They brought their experiences and leadership from the old Central Jurisdiction into The United Methodist Church.

One engaging program features five faculty members of Methodist Theological School in Ohio, telling a class in 1964 of their trip to Jackson, Mississippi—attempting and failing to integrate a Methodist Church on Easter morning. This was a significant event in the movement toward the integration of Methodist churches nationally.

There are more than 1,025 audio programs available on the website: speeches, lectures, sermons, interviews and radio programs from the Methodist Church and from many other faith traditions. The collection was begun by Mike Hickcox 10 years ago, when he was on staff at United Methodist Communications. It began in collaboration with the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, and Hickcox continued the project when he left UMCom in 2010. New programs from the United Methodist archives are added every month. Eventually, the entire audio collection and the website will be turned over to the stewardship of GCAH to preserve into the future, to continue making the programs available to listeners on the Internet and to keep their voices alive in our minds and hearts.

Hickcox is the communication director at the Society of St. Andrew national office in Virginia. He has been on staff at UCC and United Methodist churches in Connecticut and New Hampshire, at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, the New England Conference of the UMC and United Methodist Communications.

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