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Preserving Pacifica Radio's Archives

Pacifica programmer William Mandel testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958.
Pacifica programmer William Mandel testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958.
Pacifica Foundation founder Lewis Hill, in the early 1950s.
Pacifica Foundation founder Lewis Hill, in the early 1950s.

Her words are still chilling, now some 40 years after they were recorded. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer is describing her 1963 jailhouse beating: "And I just began to scream where I couldn't control it and then the white man got up and began to beat me in the head... These are the things that we go through in the state of Mississippi just trying to be treated like a human being, but still this is called a part of America."

The Hamer recording is part of the Pacifica Radio audio archives. The five-member public radio network -- founded in 1949 by pacifist Lewis Hill -- is working to preserve its five decades of rare sound recordings. In an interview with NPR's Bob Edwards, Brian DeShazor, director of archives, describes the importance of preserving the audio collection -- more than 47,000 tapes, many of which are deteriorating and in risk of being lost forever -- as part of American political and cultural history.

The recordings feature interviews, speeches, poetry and literature by political figures and artists, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, the Dalai Lama, Langston Hughes and Lenny Bruce. A rare 1966 recording captures jazz legend John Coltrane riffing on spirituality. It was taped in a parking lot.

"Nobody else was covering these materials at that time. That's why they're so unique," DeShazor says.

He says that from its beginning, Pacifica has championed constitutional free speech and social activism. "The idea of free speech and the First Amendment is in the mission statement, so that when we listen to the recordings that we have, we understand that people felt they weren't going to be censored so they had freedom to speak their ideas, however radical that they were."

In addition to in-studio interviews, DeShazor says "a wealth of the materials are in the street anti-war protest rallies, the Black Panther Party rallies, the social issue rallies that were going on in Berkeley and in New York... So what we have are a plethora of speeches, lectures at universities, interviews, music and documentaries."

Among the archives is a memorable recording featuring Rosa Parks, whose act of defiance in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., helped spark desegregation. As DeShazor describes it, "she still has a calm determination and you can sort of hear in her voice an innocence because it was still prior to the civil rights movement as it grew and became successful."

In the interview, Parks explains why she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person: "I felt that I was not being treated right and that I had a right to retain the seat that I had taken as a passenger on the bus."

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