The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism.
IN MAY 1954, THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT ISSUED ITS RULING IN the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. That ruling upended the legal concept often summed up as "separate but equal," which had undergirded laws establishing segregated public services and facilities--especially public schools--for decades. The Court's decision finally acknowledged the grim reality that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," and ushered in the era of integration of public schools and, eventually, other public facilities as well.
In The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South, authors Wayne and Shirley Wiegand chronicle the desegregation of another facility intimately linked to American educational values: the public library. The authors set out to shine a light on the African Americans who made sacrifices on behalf of desegregation of public libraries across the South. Though various civil rights organizations were involved in desegregation efforts centered on public libraries, the authors focus specifically on the stories of the individual protestors--most of whom were teenagers or young adults--and their experiences in attempting to use public library facilities.
The Wiegands begin the book with a helpful introduction that contextualizes the desegregation of public libraries within the context of the broader civil rights movement. The first full chapter sets the stage for the discussion of desegregation by describing the various ways African Americans in the South established their own libraries, or sought access to resources despite the limited library access afforded them because of Jim Crow laws and discriminatory social practices.
The chapters that follow present a catalog of library desegregation efforts preceding the monumental Brown decision. The story continues into the six years immediately following the decision as legal challenges to segregated library services sprang up across the South. These challenges to segregated public libraries formed an important (but often overlooked) part of the overall civil rights strategy, depending on the context of the local community. The authors add to this narrative in subsequent chapters by focusing on descriptions of the various attempts to desegregate public libraries--and the varying levels of resistance those efforts encountered--that occurred in specific towns and cities across the South after 1960. Those chapters focus on cities in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia, with overall assessments of desegregation and opposition in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The authors conclude the book with a brutally honest assessment of how the American Library Association, whose members were deeply divided over how or even if to respond to library integration efforts, proved to be a non-factor in the movement to desegregate southern public libraries.
The authors' stated objective is to chronicle the efforts of young African Americans to desegregate public libraries across the South. The Wiegands' primary motivation in telling these stories is to identify those who worked long and hard and suffered much to bring attention to the lack of access to library resources for blacks and to remedy the situation. Regarding that stated objective, the Wiegands have succeeded mightily. The reader will be impressed and at times overwhelmed by the sheer number of documented library protests. Equally impressive is the number of local and nationally prominent activists who recognized the importance of the library as a shared public space that should provide equal access to citizens of the community, regardless of race.
The authors have compiled a wealth of geographically diverse primary sources, relying heavily on court records, local newspapers, and African American newspapers for public commentary on the events relating to desegregation. The discovery and gathering of the sources included in the endnotes and bibliography make a significant contribution to the literature. The unique focus on the integration of public libraries adds many details that have not otherwise been covered in the larger story of the civil rights movement.
The epilogue introduces and discusses another of the authors' purposes, which is to challenge the prevailing narrative in the library profession in which a monolithic, socially progressive majority of librarians must have resisted segregation and actively supported integrated library services. The authors cite anecdotal evidence for a professional amnesia among librarians that assumes a positive role for librarians in desegregation. The summation of the assembled catalog of library protests in favor of integrated library services in the South certainly points to a much different view, one that indicates a divided professional organization that remained silent for much of the pivotal period in library integration efforts.
While the book achieves these two goals to a large degree, the reader is sometimes left wondering if the aims are too modest. The value of documenting the primarily untold stories of these activists is undoubtedly important, but at times the narrative can end up sounding more like a list of people and events than a cohesive story. Although the introduction provides context for library protests within the broader framework of the civil rights movement, more could be done throughout the rest of the book to directly connect the local incidents to the broader history of the movement. Likewise, the discussion in the epilogue of how formerly Jim Crow public libraries have become locations of racial reconciliation is interesting but brief and seems worthy of additional exploration.
Complex views of the public library as a public institution emerge from the telling of these stories. With each case of segregation, protest, and eventual integration, it becomes more clear that the library functions as both an integral part of the community and as a pawn that can be sacrificed as part of a larger strategy. Both African Americans and large portions of the white community viewed public libraries as a vital part of daily existence and as a key component in the educational and recreational opportunities available to them. But white leaders saw shutting down the library and doing away with library services altogether as preferable to integration. As the authors document, time and again both the white and the black constituencies in a given community resisted and resented the closing of a public library as a response by community leaders to integration efforts. White leaders seeking to uphold segregation therefore frequently took up the position that integration of the public library was a sacrifice they were willing to make as part of a larger strategy to uphold segregation in more "important" public institutions, such as public schools.
The way the authors illuminate the contested position of the library in society contributes greatly to the overall value of the book. The story of library integration highlights just how important public facilities like libraries are to marginalized and underprivileged groups, while libraries are simultaneously seen as little more than bargaining chips by those in positions of power and privilege in a given community.
David S. Nolen
Mississippi State University