When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in 2016, one of the collections will focus on the civil rights movement. The visual centerpiece will be 77-ton green passenger railcar used during segregation, but visitors can tune into the voices from that era through dozens of video oral history interviews conducted by Virginia Tech’s David Cline.

Charles A. Price Jr., at left, talks with David Cline.
Charles A. Price Jr., at left, board president of the Harrison Museum of African American Culture in Roanoke, Virginia, talks with David Cline.

An historian specializing in 20th century U.S. social movements, Cline spent the better part of a year traveling the country as a research scholar and a lead interviewer for the Civil Rights History Project, initiated by Congress and managed jointly by the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. Cline and veteran videographer John Bishop recorded oral histories from both major players and oft-forgotten participants of that tumultuous period.

“It’s one of those true cliches, but hearing history from the mouths of those who experienced it really brings those times and events and feelings back to life in ways that are consistently compelling and often inspiring,” Cline said.

Among his most memorable interviewees are

  • The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, the Richmond minister who was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief of staff and was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1960 to 1964
  • John Carlos, one of the two sprinters who raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
  • Aaron Dixon and Elmer Dixon, brothers who as teenagers founded the Black Panther Party chapter in Washington state
  • Children’s author, teacher, and women’s advocate Mildred Pitts Walter
  •  Clarence Jones, who wrote the first draft of King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech

Cline’s work is touted as “invaluable” and “exemplary” by Guha Shankar, folklife specialist for the Library of Congress. “His ability to give the interviewees the space and time to open up and tell their story, and to do so sensitively, empathetically, and without stepping all over them, is quite remarkable,” Shankar said.

Cline said he particularly enjoyed speaking with John and Jean Rosenberg, who worked in concert across the South as staff members with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The couple followed up on claims of illegal voting practices, turning them into actionable cases.

“Along with the local people who consistently struggled, the Rosenbergs are among those whose names we never know but without whom there would have been no movement and no lasting change through judicial or legislative action,” Cline said.

Laid back and casual, Cline prefers to be the one asking the questions rather than the focus of an article. His passion comes through when he talks about the fieldwork and especially about teaching oral history interview techniques to undergraduates and graduate students.

In fall 2014, Cline taught two oral history courses, both of which explored the LGBTQ history of the South with an emphasis on Virginia Tech’s stories. He and his students interviewed two dozen alumni, faculty, staff, and students for inclusion in the university’s archives.

An assistant professor of history, Cline is the current director of the Graduate Certificate Program in Public History, which he defines as “the study of how history is presented to and used by the public.” Launched in 2012, the program already has three graduates and 10 current students from the History Department, the School of Education, and ASPECT.

David Cline
"Hearing history from the mouths of those who experienced it really brings those times and events and feelings back to life in ways that are consistently compelling and often inspiring," David Cline says.

Cline also is the co-editor of the leading oral history series, Palgrave Studies in Oral History, published by New York’s Palgrave Macmillan. Books in the series use interviews to explore a range of historical topics, including human rights issues, through first-person accounts.

In 2012, students interviewed a dozen former students from the Christiansburg Institute, which educated black students in the New River Valley from 1867 to 1966. That ongoing project is featured at the Harrison Museum of African American History and Culture in Roanoke’s Center in the Square.

Cline is the author of “Creating Choice: A Community Responds to the Need for Abortion and Birth Control, 1961-1973” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). The book explores underground networks that helped women get access to birth control and abortion when both were illegal in Massachusetts.

On research leave this semester thanks in part to a Dean’s Faculty Fellowship Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Cline is completing a book of oral histories exploring blacks’ participation in the Korean War and its relationship to the civil rights movement. He previously was part of a team of historians and journalists on the radio documentary “Korea: The Unfinished War,” which aired on National Public Radio.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at 540-231-5915.

Listen to their stories

The following videos are part of David Cline’s interviews for the Civil Rights History Project.

About the Graduate Certificate Program in Public History

In Virginia Tech’s Graduate Certificate Program in Public History, students take classes such as oral history interviewing techniques, digital history, museum studies, or historic preservation.

Internships are a key part of the program with students recently clocking hours at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, the Virginia Museum of Transportation, and other significant sites in the New River Valley and beyond.

Students who complete the certificate program are prepared for careers as educators and curators at museums, historic sites, and other public history venues. Their classroom and practical experience empowers them to put historical knowledge to work in contemporary settings.