Fifty years ago, the city of Birmingham became a focus for the civil rights movement. A small minority college in Alabama became the focus of Oregon State University students, with a goal to do something significant. 1964 is a pivotal year in the United States in the struggle for civil rights. What could a school in Oregon do that could make an impact on the other side of the nation?
In a November 8, 1964 article in Times magazine, the plight of a small Black college in Birmingham, Alabama was chronicled. The article stated that:
“Miles College is the only four-year college available to most of the 2,000 youngsters who graduate each year from the area’s 17 Negro high schools. It produces 60% of the city’s Negro school teachers.”
Students at Yale University collected 6,000 books for the Miles College library and delivered them personally. The school was still in need, risking accreditation due to an inadequate library. The Beavers could do better than this, and a goal was set to collect 10,000 books for Miles College. The “Books for Birmingham” project was born!
The OSU YMCA-YWCA Round Table planned the project through the newly built Kerr Library (another golden anniversary…). Student volunteers conducted the drive from January 20th through February 2nd, 1964. John Wooster, the YMCA Round Table student chairman is quoted, “This project has been undertaken as a way for OSU students and faculty to express their concerned interest in the struggle for human dignity and equal opportunity for all.”
Miles College President, Lucius Pitts travelled to OSU to speak on January 22, 1964. He expressed gratitude to OSU students and explained the tenuous position that the small college was experiencing. Pitts stood before the student body and said, “God Bless your efforts to bless us here in Birmingham and thus bless our whole world.”
The Books for Birmingham project was an overwhelming success, OSU collected over 14,000 books for Miles College. The student’s goals were exceeded, and a significant contribution to a struggling school was achieved. This project challenged other institutions across the nation to get involved, and make a difference in some substantial way in the struggle over civil rights.
The next problem to tackle would be: how do we get them there? A delegation of nine OSU Students and advisors traveled at their own expense across the US to personally deliver the donation to Birmingham. Two vehicles packed with books, arrived during spring break 1964. The Corvallis Gazette Times reported on April 20th that,
“All 800 students at Miles College, Birmingham, Ala., gave an emotional standing ovation to Oregon State University when the 14,000 books collected on this campus were presented formally to the southern school at a general assembly.”
OSU Students who made this epic journey were, Mike Koch, Linda Driskill, Carol Anderson, Nikki Kephart, Robert McDermott, Carlton Olson, Jeanne Fryer and John Wooster (who remained at Miles to teach on their staff). Also on the trip was a young Kerr library student worker, Alice Elle, without whom this story would have never been retold, some fifty years later.
Alice Elle Raden, class of 1967, lives in Pennsylvania, but receives the OSU Valley Library newsletter, The Messenger, by mail. She noticed an article about student workers in the current issue and it reminded her about her time as a student worker and her involvement in the Books for Birmingham project. She contacted us with this story, and this important historical event lives again. There is a small file in SCARC’s Memorabilia Collection (MC), folder “Miles College – Book Drive. 1963-1964” with some newspaper articles and correspondence.
As a special added bonus, Alice will be visiting her library once again in late March. We will have the opportunity to get her story about the trip and the book drive first hand, in an oral history interview. Look for more about the Books for Birmingham project in the coming months!
~ Mike Dicianna, OMA Student Worker