The Freedom Archives and Decolonizing the Past

The Freedom Archives is a non-profit educational archive located in San Francisco dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of historical audio, video, and print materials documenting progressive movements and culture from the 1960s to the 1990s. We’ve asked Nathaniel Moore and Claude Marks to discuss the expansive project. Here, they reflect on the role that oral histories within the archive play in creating deeper understandings and decolonizing the past.

How did the Freedom Archives begin?

During the mid-1960s, many young people in the San Francisco Bay Area were involved in producing radio programming dedicated to documenting people’s history, anti-colonial struggles, and social movements of the era. This programming often combined in-depth interviews and reports on social and cultural issues; activist voices from a number of social justice movements; and original and recorded music, poetry, and sound collages. They were broadcast over KPFA and the Pacifica Network, as well as on KPOO radio based in San Francisco.  The vast majority of these programs were independently produced by collective groupings, all with a commitment to anti-imperialism, human rights, internationalism, and highlighting marginalized voices and movements unheard in or distorted by the establishment media.

In the late 1990s, this diverse core of original radio producers and cultural workers organized a working group to restore and catalog these historical tapes, saving them from further deterioration and loss, and making their historical value and lessons accessible to future generations—thus launching The Freedom Archives.

How has the Freedom Archives project changed or developed since then?

Over the past twenty years, the Freedom Archives has become a national and international source of media of great interest to young people and students, but also to teachers, diverse community organizations, media outlets, filmmakers, activists, historians, artists and researchers.  We regularly produce original documentaries and educational media for use within schools and as tools for community building. We’ve also designed and launched a digital search engine that allows for increased access to our holdings through a less academic and more user friendly exploration of our materials. This site is media-sample-driven; advanced users can still use Boolean search logic but all users can now use keywords, or simply explore our site by using visual or other media-based cues.

We also maintain an active youth development program that encourages engagement with historical materials and provides media production training as well as fostering a love for progressive history. We have developed strong, cooperative, and effective partnerships and project based connections with a number of youth organizations, local high schools, community colleges, and 4 year colleges and universities. Since 2003, hundreds of young people have passed through the archives as a result of our program. 

In what ways can the oral histories and historic audio in this archive either supplement or change understandings about the past? Can you share an example of how this occurs?

In August 2017 we released a documentary titled Symbols of Resistance which focuses on the emergence of the Chican@ Movement in Colorado and New Mexico in the 1970s through stories around the struggle for land,  the student movement, and community resistance against police repression. These stories are largely absent from official histories of the period and had previously been shared and passed down primarily through the oral remembrances of friends and family members who knew the martyrs. Thus, this film is an important step in preserving these important narratives for generations to come.

These stories also represent an important component of the Chican@ struggle that is often not well understood—that the movement was not limited to organizing agricultural workers. By uplifting perspectives of urban Chican@s challenging police violence; issues of land rights, colonialism, and the legitimacy of the US-Mexico border; and situating the movement in the context of other 1960s social movements, it expands how we understand the significance of Chican@s in this country and globally. By deepening people’s understanding of the roots of struggle, we’ll be able to amplify how this history can inform and strengthen current organizing efforts and movement building.

How has the role of the stories saved in the archive changed in response to today’s political moment?

In many ways the stories are even more important today given how knowledge is being erased to reinforce and justify colonial history. We have also brought many historical stories to light over the years through our website, social media, and documentaries, allowing the stories themselves to regain life and importance and showing the richness of primary sources when studying the history of resistance.

What is the importance of preserving these marginalized voices as well as the importance of making them available to the public?

There is an overwhelming need for young people to have access to educational resources that assist them in unearthing lessons of the recent past and lifting up voices intentionally removed from the dominant views of history. This “subjugated history” is the history of resistance, the history as told by the colonized and not by the conquerors. We see our role as preserving the voices of liberation and concepts supporting freedom and justice—not the voices of the powerful that gained land and riches through the violence and brutality of genocide, slavery, and oppression. By preserving, creating access, and disseminating alternative stories to those normally taught in text books, we help people to understand and challenge the oppressive structures around them.

Now that the organization is approaching its 20 year anniversary, is there anything that the Freedom Archives would like to reflect on or look forward to?

We’re appreciative of all the people who have contributed to making the Freedom Archives what it is today. We hope to continue our collaborative work with other small and independent collections and continue to build a space that embraces alternative histories. Our ongoing focus is expressed in our mission statement—to preserve the past, illuminate the present, and shape the future.

This contribution was co-written by one of the Freedom Archives Founders, Claude Marks, and archivist Nathaniel Moore. Marks has been involved in all of the CD and video productions of the Archives, and has continued his activism, especially in support of political prisoners. Moore has worked with the Freedom Archives since 2012. He holds degrees in African Studies, African-American Studies, and Library and Information Science.

Featured image is the Freedom Archives Logo