Nebraska-led project digitizes 1960s activism artifacts

· 4 min read

Nebraska-led project digitizes 1960s activism artifacts
Collaboration between Jones, Payne expands access to rare collection

Chicago, 1968
Roz Payne | Roz Payne Sixties Archive
Protestors in masks make their way through the streets during anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Mention the 1960s, and a few things are top of mind — activism, war, counterculture, protests — and Roz Payne, a filmmaker, photographer and activist herself, was often in the center of it all.

A member of the Newsreel Films collective, Payne chronicled the decade, following movements spanning the progressive spectrum, including Black Power, anti-war, gay rights, women’s liberation and Cuban Revolution among many others.

Now, much of her work from the 1960s is available online, through the Roz Payne Sixties Archive, a project spearheaded by University of Nebraska–Lincoln historian Patrick Jones. The archive, which is hosted by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, is completely searchable and annotated.

Patrick Jones
Patrick Jones
Jones, associate professor of history and ethnic studies, met Payne when she visited campus for a “Blacks in Film” festival in 2009. As a historian of contemporary America, Jones established a quick friendship with Payne.

After several long conversations, Jones pitched Payne the idea of a digital archive, where her photos and films could live online and be accessed with whomever wanted to learn from them. Over the next few years, Jones visited Payne in her Burlington, Vermont, home to work on the project with her.

During his first visit to Payne’s home, Jones realized that the archive would be much larger than he anticipated. Payne witnessed events through her camera lens, but she was also a collector. She kept mementos like buttons, manifestos, posters and pamphlets from every movement she followed and every event she chronicled.

“She said she had a few filing cabinets of stuff, but when I visited the first time, there was so much that was just a part of her lived experience,” Jones said. “On a wall, under a thumbtack, there were two tickets from Woodstock. In a closet, on shelves, she had hundreds of various posters. It was almost overwhelming, but it was such a rare collection.”

A soldier in the National Guard keeps watch in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Anti-war and counterculture demonstrations took place at the same time as the convention and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley requested assistance from the National Guard to maintain "law and order."

Jones spent each visit scanning the memorabilia while Payne shared hundreds of stories accompanying the collection. The most surprising pieces Jones came across were the original blueprints from the Woodstock Festival of 1969.

“She worked at Woodstock and was one of the people who put up fences each night,” Jones said. “They would actually unscrew the fences so people could come in without tickets.

“And on the last day of Woodstock, she goes back to the cabin, which was like the central headquarters for the people organizing it. She’d gotten separated from her friends and she went back to try to see if any of her friends were there, they'd all left already. She saw the blueprints for Woodstock sitting there, and she had the presence of mind to take those.”

The digitized collection is artifacts of the activism that defined the decade, including an anti-war march on the Pentagon in 1967; a showdown with the National Guard in Chicago, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention; Janis Joplin in concert; and the underground press.

There are also auspices of events to come, like posters and buttons from when Payne and her friends encouraged a political unknown to run for mayor of their small city in 1980: Bernie Sanders.

“The collection is vast, but it echoes much of what is happening now,” Jones said. “It’s been really interesting to see how the issues are similar, and that there’s a longer history – like these issues haven’t come out of nowhere. It’s part of an ongoing struggle, with reverberations. We haven’t progressed fully on some of these issues, but there has been change.”

While there are a few items from other decades, Jones honed in on a single historic decade.

“There was so much more, but in terms of volume and national historical context, I made the choice to focus on the '60s,” Jones said.

In April of 1969, after a lengthy, coordinated effort by local and federal law enforcement to infiltrate and disrupt the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, District Attorney Frank Hogan indicted 21 members of the organization. In what was, at the time, the longest and most costly trial in New York state history, the Panthers were acquitted of all 156 charges on May 12, 1971.