Now, oral historians are focusing on finding activists in underdocumented rural areas and small towns.
“At the end of the day, these are the important people,” Mr. Cox said. “At the end of the day, if they did not exist and did not step up, we could not exist.”
Briana Salas, a Ph.D. student at Texas Christian University and oral historian, said the pandemic had complicated her efforts over the last two years to reach activists from that generation.
“We want to be able to protect them,” she said. “It’s a serious issue.”
In addition to acknowledging and recording activists’ role in history, these stories give educators and their students a new way to discuss that era in classrooms, said John Gartrell, the director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture at Duke University.
“Activists share the goal of getting the information out there,” Mr. Gartrell said.
Seth Kotch, the director of the Southern Oral History Program, a project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that has captured testimonies from the civil rights movement for decades, said he saw “troubling evidence all around us” that people were unfamiliar with this period of American history.
He listened to President Biden’s voting rights speech in Atlanta, during which the president asked elected officials, “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?”
For that question to hold weight, Professor Kotch said, people must know the intimate ways in which Black Americans were affected by Connor, the segregationist commissioner of a brutal police department in Birmingham, Ala., in the early 1960s.