Preserving a Radical Past

Ten Years of the Freedom Archives

By Dan Berger

Tucked in San Francisco’s Mission District lies a treasure trove of social movement history and culture. The Freedom Archives is home to more than 8,000 hours of audio and video, as well as countless papers and publications from the last 50 years of people’s struggles.

The materials housed at the Freedom Archives cover topics ranging from actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson to Puerto Rico. The collection emphasizes the struggles for Black liberation, Native American sovereignty, Chicano liberation, peace and social justice, and women’s liberation. It is home to rare publications and recordings of these and other radical movements since the 1960s. Its focus is local, national, and global. Particularly noteworthy is the collection of radio programs and raw audio footage of interviews and events from the 1970s about a variety of organizing endeavors.

The archives makes this material publicly available, allowing the researcher and the documentary producer, as well as the curious activist, access to radical history that cannot be found elsewhere. The basic collection is also searchable online.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the collection is the variety of materials it contains about prison organizing. This emphasis should not be surprising: The reporters whose programs are housed there covered prisoner organizing and political trials around the country throughout the 1970s, and the archives also has a plethora of prison-themed newspapers and flyers from the heyday of prison organizing. These materials were donated by dozens of activists in the Bay Area and beyond, making the Freedom Archives home to an impressive array of political ephemera.

Prison radicalism can also be found in the creation of the Freedom Archives. Founder and director Claude Marks began locating materials and old friends to build this social movement archive while he was finishing a four-year sentence as a political prisoner for actions taken in solidarity with the Puerto Rican independence movement. His experience, along with the continued activism of the archives’ other founders and board of directors, means that the archives emphasizes prison issues in the context of struggles against repression and for justice.

Since the archives opened its doors in 1999, it has continued to publicize the history of prison organizing through audio and video documentaries. It produced an hour-long audio documentary called Prisons on Fire, about prisoner and Black Panther field marshal George Jackson (killed in prison on August 21, 1971) and about the Attica prisoner uprising in September 1971.

The archives has also produced a CD of poetry by political prisoner Marilyn Buck and four documentaries about prison struggles. These documentaries have addressed women in prison (Charisse Shumate: Fighting for Our Lives), oral histories with political prisoners (Voices of 3 Political Prisoners: Nuh Washington, Jalil Muntaqim, and David Gilbert) and prison activists (Self-Respect, Self-Defense, and Self-Determination: Mabel Williams and Kathleen Cleaver, with Angela Davis), and contemporary cases of political repression (Legacy of Torture: The War Against the Black Liberation Movement).

Its next project is an hour-long DVD about the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which tried and imprisoned hundreds of activists in the 1960s and 1970s—including several who remain incarcerated today.

The Freedom Archives is no passive outlet for radical history; it played an active role in the campaign to free the San Francisco 8, which succeeded in forcing the state to drop the charges against most of the defendants, all former members of the Black Panther Party.

The archives’ resources cross media formats and technological capacity: whereas using the space in person provides access to reel-to-reel audio from radio programs in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the archives also maintains two email announcement listserves. One list supplies news articles about prisons and political prisoners, and the other discusses general anti-imperialism topics. The archives recently began a monthly podcast of its materials as well. Its office is open by appointment.

Dan Berger lives in Philadelphia and writes about prison organizing and political prisoners. He is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity and editor of a forthcoming book about U.S. social movements in the 1970s.