In the long struggle for civil rights, we’ve all heard of the bridge at Selma, the bus boycott in Montgomery — but what about libraries?
Libraries were important battlefields in the civil rights movement, a place where African-Americans fought for equal access to taxpayer-funded public spaces and educational opportunities with read-ins and sit-ins.
A new book, “The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism,” by Wayne Wiegand and Shirley Wiegand, is a harrowing and fascinating account of those efforts.
The Wiegands and members of various historical library protests, who all have gone on to distinguished careers across the South, will come together for a panel discussion as part of the American Library Association meeting Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. at the New Orleans Main Library.
Wiegand, a retired professor of information and library science and American studies at the University of Florida and Shirley Wiegand, his wife of 53 years, a professor emerita of law at Marquette University, are also the authors of “Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the Public Library.” Wayne Wiegand calls that a bottoms-up history; the new book grew out of the research for that one.
“The protests in the public libraries were being ignored by the white press in the South, as well as national press. But the black newspapers were covering it and often called to get quotes,” Wiegand said. “We decided that this was a story that had to be told. … After all, these were kids. … The national media tended to follow the leaders of the civil rights movement, but those folks didn’t necessarily participate in the public library protests.
“Often, libraries were one step to prove that white establishment could compromise,” Wiegand said. “Remember, use of the library is not compulsory. That’s why there was more violence in school protests.”
The Wiegands introduce readers to the Tougaloo Nine, Tougaloo College students who were arrested when they attempted to integrate the Jackson, Mississippi, public library. “Medgar Evers organized a youth NAACP young people’s group there, and they decided to organize a library protest, which would have been the first civil rights protest in the state of Mississippi,” Wiegand said.
After requesting a book that wasn’t in the library, Ethel Sawyer Adolphe was determined to use the public space. “I went over and sat at one of the tables, and I had other textbooks with me that I read up until the time I was interrupted,” she said.
The precariousness of her position is illustrated by the jacket photo, an image of a young African-American man, James “Sam” Bradford, sitting at a library table as white police officers look on. Those officers would later arrest both Adolphe and Bradford.
Then there are the Greenville Eight, young people who sought access to the public library in Greenville, South Carolina, in the summer of 1960; a young college student, Jesse Jackson, was in that number.
In many cases, the progress of library integration followed a predictable narrative: Protesters entered the library, requested library cards or books, staged read-ins or sit-ins, were arrested and filed suit. Finally, the libraries would be integrated.
But it was a slow process. Louisiana even had segregated bookmobiles for a time. One of the drastic measures Southern libraries used was called “vertical integration.” Tables and chairs would be removed so there would be no racial intermingling in seating; patrons would only be able to check out books and leave.
The integration of New Orleans Public Libraries was accomplished with little fanfare and no violence; that history also appears in this book. The library system operated an African-American branch on Dryades Street, which opened in 1915 as a Carnegie Library and closed in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy. A second branch, Branch Nine, opened in the Valena C. Jones School in 1946. When the school needed the space returned, the library system purchased two surplus army huts and added a room to a facility at St. Bernard and North Prieur streets, which eventually became the Nora Navra branch. Named for and funded by a bequest from an unmarried Jewish homemaker, Nora Navra served the heart of the African-American community. Closed since Katrina, the historic branch has been rebuilt and is slated to reopen soon.
Thanks to the efforts — “the brilliant political strategy,” as Wiegand calls it — of Albert C. Dent, then-president of Dillard University who formed a coalition of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant clergy, and civil rights activist Rosa Keller, “constantly a thorn in the side of the NOPL board,” the New Orleans Public Libraries opened doors to all at about the same time as the decision in Brown v. Board of Education was being handed down.
One of the important stories in this book is the desegregation of libraries in rural Louisiana — Ouachita, Jackson, St. Helena and East and West Feliciana parishes. “CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) trained young people — some as young as 9 — to go into the libraries,” Wiegand said. “And afterward, they collected affidavits. From those affidavits, we were able to construct those stories of rural Louisiana libraries, which distinguished rural public library services from urban library services.”
As Wiegand demonstrates, this was not always the finest hour for the American Library Association as an organization. It failed to live up to the “Library Bill of Rights” passed in 1939, which included a provision for equal access. He is currently circulating an apology to the protesters that he hopes will pass in time for him to present it at the June 24 event.
In the meantime, the quiet heroism of the young people in this book speaks loudly and clearly.
Susan Larson is the host of The Reading Life on WWNO-FM.