As in other efforts to integrate civic institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, the determination of local activists won the battle against segregation in libraries. In particular, the willingness of young black community members to take part in organized protests and direct actions ensured that local libraries would become truly free to all citizens. Yet, the contributions of these brave individuals have largely been overlooked by the American Library Association (ALA) and in civil rights history until recently. On June 24, 2018, the ALA passed a significant resolution to honor and apologize to the African Americans who fought to integrate public libraries. We asked Wayne Wiegand, coauthor of the The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism, to detail how this moment came to fruition.
“We’ve got to do something about this.” That’s what Sara Dallas, ALA councilor-at-large and chair of the ALA Committee on Professional Ethics, said to me at the conclusion of a Library History Round Table program we both attended at the 2017 ALA Annual conference in Chicago. Keynoter Geraldine Edward Hollis gave a talk titled “Desegregating Public Libraries” and recounted her memories of what happened on May 27, 1961, when she and eight of her Tougaloo College classmates participated in Mississippi’s first civil rights demonstration at the segregated Jackson Public Library. For thirty minutes Hollis held an audience of 200 spellbound by detailing some very scary experiences. Sadly, for most in attendance, her story was one they had never heard before.
In the subsequent Q&A session I announced that my wife, Shirl, and I had coauthored a book Louisiana State University Press would be publishing the following spring titled The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism. I told the audience that in the book we not only discussed the Tougaloo Nine, but we also covered the efforts of hundreds of young black people between the ages of nine and nineteen who risked their lives between 1954 and 1965 in order to desegregate scores of southern public libraries. The nation’s library community had little knowledge of these brave youngsters, I noted, and its national voice—the American Library Association—had largely overlooked their contributions to the history of one of our nation’s ubiquitous civic institutions. “We’ve got to do something about this, “ said Sara.
As Shirl and I planned our spring rollout for The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South that included presentations at book festivals and public and university libraries mostly in the Deep South, I also decided to draft an “apology resolution” modeled on those the United States House of Representatives and Senate had passed in 2008 and 2009 titled “Apologizing for the Enslavement and Racial Segregation of African Americans.” In the draft I included information extracted from our book and forwarded it to Sara on March 29. “This is very powerful,” she quickly responded. “I’m going to share this with some other councilors, including James Neal [ALA president] and Loida Garcia-Febo [ALA president-elect], and get their input and support.” In my response I told Sara that the New Orleans Public Library would be sponsoring a program focused on our book the afternoon of June 24—right in the middle of ALA’s New Orleans conference—that would include four protesters from selected Deep South public libraries we had covered. I expressed the hope the Council could pass a resolution in time for it to be read at the program.
Sara immediately jumped on the challenge by forming a working group to fine tune the resolution and get support, and within days I was receiving thanks from scores of people— including from ALA President Jim Neal—for introducing the idea of an apology resolution. Over subsequent weeks Sara continuously kept me informed of the progress, adjustments, edits, additions, extractions, and ultimately the significantly improved original draft, and also included information on the support the resolution was receiving from other ALA members and organizations within the nation’s library community. As a result of her efforts and the efforts of her colleagues and the ALA staff, the Council unanimously passed the resolution the morning of June 24. That afternoon, Jim Neal read it at the beginning of our NOPL program. “We’ve got to do something about this” thus became a reality.
Wayne A. Wiegand is F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies Emeritus and professor of American Studies at Florida State University. You can learn more about the desegregation of southern libraries by reading Wiegand’s blog post on the hidden figures of civil rights history and buying his book, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism.