Prologue Magazine

Documenting the Struggle for Racial Equality in the Decade of the Sixties

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Geraldine N. Phillips

The struggle for racial equality in the United States of America in the 1960s extended across the nation and was waged from segregated lunch counters to the bar of the United States Supreme Court. It had an impact on every aspect of American life, including the federal government. Because the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) preserves and makes available federal records of continuing value, its holdings are a valuable source of documentation about this era. Federal records can shed light on how and why the struggle was launched, on occurrences during the 1960s that influenced the course of events in America in the following decades, and on the federal government's role in the struggle. During the past ten years, NARA has added to its holdings and, in some instances, made available for the first time records that provide interesting insights into the federal role in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

Among the records transferred into NARA's legal custody since 1990 are three bodies of materials that are likely to attract attention from researchers of the civil rights revolution. The first is the collection of records of the Task Force to Review the FBI Martin Luther King, Jr., Security and Assassination Investigations. The records were transferred in 1992 from the Department of Justice with restrictions on access under sections of the Freedom of Information Act and as security-classified materials. They have subsequently been reviewed and are now, for the most part, open to research with some deletions for privacy and protection of national security information.

The task force, appointed by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility, was in existence from April 1976 to January 1977. During this time, its members reviewed all of the FBI files of the five investigations conducted by the bureau into Dr. King and the civil rights movement, including investigations of communist influence in racial matters and the security risk posed by Dr. King. About 80 percent of the task force records consists of an appendix (appendix C) to the final task force report, which contains a two-sentence summary of every file from these five FBI investigations. Because the appendix can be used as a finding aid to this mass of FBI investigative files, it is a potentially important tool to those whose research is directed toward determining not only what the FBI found out about Dr. King and the movement but also the measures used by the FBI to uncover this information.1

Another body of material related to the task force records, accessioned almost twenty years ago, will be available for research in the year 2027. In 1978 NARA accessioned fifty-six linear feet of records relating to the FBI's surveillance of Dr. King as a result of a court order issued by Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr., of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on January 31, 1977. The order required the FBI to assemble all known copies of documents and tapes relating to the surveillance of Dr. King and to prepare an inventory of this material, all of which was to be transferred to the National Archives' custody and remain under seal for fifty years.3 When the seal is finally removed, these King surveillance records and the records of the Task Force to Review the FBI Martin Luther King, Jr., Security and Assassination Investigations will no doubt be used in conjunction with each other.

In 1990 NARA began transferring to its legal custody important thirty-year-old segments of the FBI headquarters case files for Class 44, Civil Rights. The first transfer in 1990 consisted of index cards that serve as a finding aid to the case files. The succeeding transfers between 1990 and 1992 consisted of the case files themselves, spanning the period from 1922 to 1955 and covering such topics as the Ku Klux Klan, racial disturbances, and police brutality.3

The third body of material transferred since 1990 with potential value for research into the civil rights movement of the 1960s consists of the office files of Assistant Attorneys General W. Wilson White, Joseph M. F. Ryan, Jr., Burke Marshall, and John Doar and Deputy Assistant Attorneys General St. John Barrett and David L. Norman. The files were offered by the Department of Justice to NARA in 1992 and document the increasing involvement of the Civil Rights Division, which was created in 1957, in the struggle for racial equality.

The files of W. Wilson White include materials on the use of federal marshals in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961 to protect the Freedom Riders. A May 21, 1961, teletype from the attorney general to Byron White (later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court) at Maxwell Air Force Base directed him to use federal marshals and deputy marshals to protect the rights of all persons in the state of Alabama "guaranteed them by the Constitution and Laws of the United States." W. Wilson White's files also include a report on congressional legislation and Department of Justice actions taken in response to lynchings of blacks since 1937 as well as materials on school integration and segregation laws.

The files of Joseph M. F. Ryan, Jr., who served as acting assistant attorney general from 1958 to 1960, include a position paper prepared on desegregation of off-base service schools. One of the schools cited in the paper was the Little Rock Air Force Base School, a racially segregated school in Pulaski County, Arkansas, which was constructed in 1958 with federal funds. The paper traces how the Department of Justice came to the position of serving as amicus curiae in a suit brought by the parent of a black child who was refused admittance to the school.

Perhaps the best known of the assistant attorneys general to head the Civil Rights Division during the 1960s was Burke Marshall, who was President John F. Kennedy's personal emissary to Birmingham following the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Marshall's files cover such subjects as the sit-ins, school integration, and legislation passed by the state of Mississippi to support racial segregation.

John Doar followed the Freedom Riders from Birmingham in 1961, escorted James Meredith during an unsuccessful attempt to register for admission at the University of Mississippi in September 1962, and met with NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evars on registering blacks to vote in Mississippi in early 1961 as part of the Department of Justice's investigation of voting discrimination in several of the southern counties of the state. Doar's files reflect his involvement in the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Included among his policy correspondence, 1965-1966, are copies of Doar's and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach's correspondence with a number of federal, state, and local officials regarding provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Doar's background notebooks contain copies of memorandums and studies done on a broad spectrum of civil rights issues from jury reform to participation in welfare programs.4

The records described here are a very small part of the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration spanning the decade of the 1960s. The passage of Public Law 102-526 in 1992 requiring government-wide disclosure of documents relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has resulted in the opening since 1993 of materials in the presidential libraries, particularly the Kennedy and Johnson Libraries, that pertain to the roles played by both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the civil rights struggle. Audiotapes of conversations of both Presidents with civil rights leaders and opponents of racial equality provide an added dimension to an understanding of the movement. The net result of future openings and additional accessions of federal records will no doubt be fuller documentation not only of the events of that period but also of the role played by the federal government during this critical time in the history of the nation.


1. These records were accessioned as part of Record Group (RG) 60, Records of the Department of Justice.

2. These records were accessioned as part of RG 65, Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

3. These records were accessioned as part of RG 65, Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

4. These records were accessioned as part of RG 60, Records of the Department of Justice.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.