Racism and Freedom of Speech: Framing the Issues

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Two of the more volatile issues in our society are racism and freedom of speech. This article is about an interesting case that severely divided the American Library Association in the late 1970s, and was recently revived. Readers ought to note that libraries and state library associations in the South were only integrated in the middle and late 1960s. African American librarians were often excluded from conference hotels during that period. The ALA establishment of that time was forced to change policies by the organized activities of librarians who were active in the civil rights movement.

The 2014 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Meeting was held in Las Vegas. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee held a panel on June 30 titled, “Speaking about The Speaker.” The Black Caucus of ALA, the Freedom to Read Foundation and the Library History Round Table co-sponsored this program.

The Speaker, ALA’s 1977 film, deeply angered the Black Caucus of ALA and large numbers of progressive members, including those affiliated with the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table. (Full disclosure: I represent that round table on ALA’s Council, its governing body.) The plot concerned a fictionalized high school that invited a famous scientist (based on physicist and Nobel Prize winner William Shockley) to speak on his research claiming that black people are genetically inferior to white people. The school’s diverse Current Events Committee was influenced by its advisor to invite the speaker. She is a well-respected white teacher with a stilted accent who is about to retire. She claimed that students needed to hear all points of view. And she said that the speaker’s theories had neither been validated nor disproved, so it would be censorship to not invite him. (But of course, Shockley had no credibility in 1977!) Two or three black and white students quit the committee when the majority voted to reaffirm the invitation. This enraged the local community, and the school board pressured the committee to rescind the invitation. The film’s moral is that the racist speaker should have been allowed to speak at the high school.

The Speaker: A Film About Freedom, a professionally made 42-minute color film was introduced to the ALA membership at the June 1977 ALA Annual Conference in Detroit. It was sponsored by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and made in secret without oversight by the ALA Executive Board or even most of the Intellectual Freedom Committee members. Judith Krug (now deceased), Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, was in charge with coordination from a small Intellectual Freedom Committee subcommittee and ALA Executive Director Robert Wedgeworth. (Some folks may remember Wedgeworth from his term as Dean of the UIUC Library, 1992-1999.) Krug envisioned the film as an exploration of the First Amendment in contemporary society.

ALA’s first black President, Clara Jones, and the ALA Executive Board were horrified when they viewed the film. The Black Caucus, the Social Responsibilities Round Table, and supporters of incoming ALA President Eric Moon were enraged that an ALA Office would choose this most volatile topic to make a case for the First Amendment. The Black Caucus argued that the film was racist, insensitive and full of stereotypes, and that the central thesis is “counterfeit and falsely identified as a First Amendment issue.” To avoid charges of censorship, the progressives did not wish to destroy the film, rather they proposed removing ALA’s name from it. The first membership vote was for removing ALA’s name, but ALA Executive Director Wedgeworth declared a counting error. The original decision was reversed after two more votes.

The Round Table also proposed censuring Krug and the Office for Intellectual Freedom, but this proposal was never voted on. The Council later reaffirmed its support for the film. The debate carried over to the 1978 Chicago ALA Midwinter Meeting. With national media and 2000 to 3000 people in attendance, the Council refused to limit the film’s distribution in any way. Major Owens (later a US Congress member from New York) said that it revealed a “secret agenda of racism,” and E. J. Josey (the principle founder of the Black Caucus) asked members “to support the humanity of black people.” Sandy Berman (guru of user-friendly cataloging) circulated a statement that was signed by sixty-five prominent librarians. It read, in part:

WE ARE ASHAMED AND DISGUSTED. The American Library Association has produced a film, The Speaker, that purports to deal with intellectual freedom and the First Amendment. It does not. Instead, it distorts and confounds the First Amendment. But even worse than this intellectual dishonesty is the film’s wanton assault upon Black people. In effect, it says: “Blacks are irrational. Blacks are unprincipled. Blacks must be ‘protected’ by Whites. And Blacks may indeed be less than fully human.”

Coming back to the 2014 program, all three panelists were supporters of the film. Mark McCallon found the evaluation forms from that first showing in the ALA Archives at the UIUC Library. He showed graphs of the responses but mischaracterized the results. Bob Wedgeworth said that he had not read the script, but that he had no regrets about his role and the result. He even repeated Krug’s claim that the film had won a minor film award, a complete fabrication. Beverly Lynch said that she continues to use the film in teaching her classes. She even agreed with the January 1977 failed attempt by the Intellectual Freedom Committee to rescind the Council’s 1976 resolution against racism and sexism. (The Committee had argued that it was a violation of the Library Bill of Rights to take such a position.) The moderator, Julius Jefferson, did not offer any opinions. Note that Wedgeworth and Jefferson are African Americans, and by their presence gave more legitimacy to the film.

The audience totaled perhaps 250 mostly white people, and the great majority were too young to have been at the meetings in 1977 and 1978. Most seemed to take the issues seriously but were unaware of the history and how the panel was manipulating that history. There were jokes from the stage and laughing several times during the presentations. The program justified the film and promoted a revisionist history for those in attendance.

Following the panelists, several audience members congratulated the sponsors for presenting a program where the difficult issues around race and intellectual freedom could be discussed. There were also several emphatically critical speakers, so one can hope that audience members got an inkling that there was more to the story. One African American reminded the audience that the film was released soon after the end of segregation, and that it was difficult for blacks to speak out at that time. She asked why ALA had chosen to publicly humiliate blacks. Another African American noted the conflict between ALA’s first black President Clara Jones and Judith Krug. She reminded the audience that civil rights are again under attack, and said that we should not be surprised that the film was resurrected at this time. An African librarian asked how the Black Caucus could co-sponsor such a skewed panel, and whether its founders were wrong in their vigorous protests of the time!

In 1978, the Black Caucus noted the “fundamental error” in equating program planning to a mandate for inviting a racist speaker. “Democracy does not require ‘tolerance of ideas we detest.’” In fact, “this nation was founded by people who would not tolerate ‘ideas they detested.’” Further, why was the film made in secret without Black Caucus input? On June 11, 2014, the Black Caucus issued an open letter stating that “times have changed,” and it was time to discuss the issue. That would be a valid argument if the panel examined what was wrong with the film and why the Association made a huge mistake in producing it. And someone might have discussed entrenched societal racism, and why Krug either wittingly or unwittingly produced a racist film. Instead, we got a whitewash. The current leadership framed the debate just as Krug did in 1977. And those who frame the debate have a powerful tool to revise history for new generations. Indeed, the African American leaders of the 1970s would be aghast at what just happened.

Al KaganAl Kagan is Professor of Library Administration and African Studies Bibliographer Emeritus at the University of Illinois. He represents the Social Responsibilities Round Table on the American Library Association’s Council, its governing body. His forthcoming book is titled Progressive Library Organizations: A Worldwide History.

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