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OHA 2018—A Reporter’s Notebook

By Barbara W. Sommer, Independent Oral Historian

Editor’s Note: With an almost endless number of conference sessions from which to choose, OHA members could sample—and reflect upon—myriad thought-provoking ideas and a-ha moments that emerged from a day’s smorgasbord. Here is a summary of several sessions a longtime OHA member shared.

Session 33: Come Together: The Critical Role of Collaboration in Remembering and Interpreting the Contested Memories of 1968

            This roundtable was chaired by Calinda Lee, vice president of historical interpretation and community partnerships at the Atlanta History Museum.Session participants were: Susan VerHoef, Atlanta History Museum; Daniel Horowitz Garcia, StoryCorps; and Addae Moon, Atlanta History Center.

            Lee presented an overview of the role of community partnerships in remembering and interpreting memories of 1968. Noting that it is important for community partnerships to be sustainable, appropriate and meaningful, she said they can help fulfill goals, reinforce leadership and provide support for understanding and interpreting memories. Strengths of community partnerships include respect for partners, developing relationships and developing trust.

            Lee stressed the importance of including peers in community partnerships and of collaborating on a plan applicable to diverse groups.

            Session participants discussed their roles in using community partnerships to help understand various interpretations of events in 1968 including the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, memories of Margaret Mitchell and the history of Atlanta and local protests and the 1968 Olympics.

            Garcia discussed the unique role of StoryCorps in documenting the memories. He discussed the differences between StoryCorps interviews and one-on-one oral history interviews and the use of multiple methodologies to document the memories of 1968.  The session ended with comments on meeting standards and ethical guidelines and the challenges of dealing with the dynamics and multiple constituencies when working with partners.

Session 47: The Long Sixties: Global Movements

            Participants: Atalia Shragai, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Miroslav Vanek, Charles University in Prague, the Czech Republic; and Kim Heikkila, Spotlight Oral History in Minnesota. The session was chaired by Robert Korstad, Duke University.

            Shragai described movement of people for activist political reasons from the United States to Costa Rica in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Describing the move as unintentional immigration, she discussed its basis in the immigrants’ ideological and idealistic beliefs. Drawing from her extensive interviews, her presentation focused on their arrival stories and the meanings of those stories as set against mid-century history, the counter-culture movement and personal identities of the interviewees as representatives of a new youth culture in the country.

            Vanek focused on interviews with people who were born in 1968 and came of age in the Czech Republic in the 1990s. The interviews were done in two projects – one in 1997-1999 and the second, providing longitudinal perspective, in 2017-2019. Working with 100 interviewees throughout the country, he documented a change in vision in a crucial time in the country’s history. Against a backdrop of change that began with a student movement questioning the political system in 1968, he used the interviews to help begin documentation of the evolution of what he described as real change to a totally new political system in the country.

            Heikkila described interviews she has done through a project based at the Minnesota Historical Society that documents the Vietnam War era in Minnesota. Noting that Minnesota had an active anti-war movement, she drew from two interviews she did for the project that illustrate both personal and political impacts of the movement and movement-based activism in the state.

            In her interview with anti-war activist and draft resister Dave Gutknecht, he described how his activism led to a major Vietnam War-era U.S. Supreme Court decision. While working at the Twin Cities Draft Information Center, an organization dedicated to draft resistance, Gutknecht resisted induction by his draft board, initiating an attempt by the draft board to retaliate with punitive induction.

            His challenge of the draft Board’s actions reached the high court. In United States v. Gutknecht (1969), the Court ruled against punitive induction, a decision that affected not only Gutknecht but the lives of thousands of men through the country.

            Heikkila also described an interview with Mary Heffernan Vogel in which she described the work of the anti-war movement in the late 1960s and early ‘70s as life-changing. During that time, she became a leader in the McCarthy for President campaign in Minnesota, which she said was the beginning of a life-long commitment to political activism that has continued beyond the anti-Vietnam War movement. 

Session 74: Oral History as a Tool for Change

            Participants: Marella Hoffman, Royal Anthropological Institute and Government, Cambridge,England; April Grayson, William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Jackson, Mississippi; and Michael Lyons, St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. The session was chaired by Wesley Hogan, Duke University.

            Hoffman focused on the use of oral history to help guide and inform development of public policy. She described transferring her academic knowledge into community activism.

            Illustrated with discussions of interviews with refugees and information that emerges from firsthand experiences, she described the “four golden pillars of oral history”– all based on oral history methodology – that guide its use in community action: “genuine power sharing in the oral history process, transparent publishing and archiving all transcripts, ethical protections of narrators at all stages and some ownership of products and outcomes for narrators.”

            Hoffman emphasized the moral obligation of oral historians to help those who are using oral history to understand the full impact of its use.

            Grayson discussed the role of oral history as a tool for social justice. She described how stories from the Deep South can help identify difficulties from the past by providing a perspective that often could otherwise be lost or whitewashed. Information in oral histories, she noted, can add richness to cultural preservation.

            Lyons described using oral history to help document the impact of imposing life sentences without parole on juvenile offenders. Calling such sentences “the other death penalty,” he discussed how the interviews led to the start of the Redemption Project and its role in making public the information about the sentences. He also noted tensions raised by the project between those interested in working to achieve long-term, broader goals and those willing to work for more achievable, middle ground short-term goals.

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