The courage of the read-ins

Booknotes looks at the battle for civil rights, as concerns libraries. Part 2 of 2.

Mike Selby

Lola Hendricks was not afraid.

It was in June of 1962 when she walked into the public library in Birmingham, Alabama. The 30-year-old insurance writer approached the circulation desk, and politely requested a book.

The library staff told Hendricks she was unwelcome, and refused to serve her “because she was a Negro.” One of the librarians then told her to try one of the “black” libraries the city had and ask one of the “black” librarians there for the book.

Lola Hendricks didn’t go to any of the separate but equal African-American libraries — she went directly to the courthouse and filed a suit against the city for not having integrated its libraries. Even though it was illegal, racial segregation was strictly enforced in cities all through the American South. Birmingham was not only the most segregated city in the entire nation, it was also one of the most violent. Lola Hendricks was not afraid — but no one would ever blame her if she was. Birmingham was a city known for biting back.

The city was ground zero for the American Civil Rights Movement. This was where the Freedom Riders were attacked and severely beaten; where the Ku Klux Klan was free to terrorize and murder; where Martin Luther King was attacked and jailed; and where bats, fire hoses, attack dogs, and eventually dynamite would be used on the city’s children. The city’s mayor had stated the libraries would only integrate “at gunpoint,” and the police commissioner hated African-Americans to the point of sheer lunacy.

Juliet Morgan — a white librarian from Montgomery — complained in a letter to the newspaper that it was untenable that public libraries professed to be institutions of democracy and freedom, but excluded half of the city’s population due to the colour of their skin. This simple act created an overwhelming amount of hostility towards her, and the mayor demanded her employment be terminated. The library she worked at was boycotted, with numerous members tearing up their cards in a mass protest. Morgan also received numerous death threats both at work and at home.

Returning home from work she found all her windows smashed and a cross burning on her front lawn. Overcome with fear, she committed suicide.

This is the setting in which a group of courageous people fought to integrate the public library. While Hendricks waited for the courts to enforce the law, a young student named U.W. Clemon entered the public library, sat beside some white patrons, and did the unthinkable: He began to read a book. Clemon was the first African-American patron to successfully use the Birmingham Public Library (he also became the first African-American federal judge). And since Clemon’s presence didn’t cause a disturbance, or the much feared racial-war, the library board voted to desegregate all of their branches. By the time Hendricks’ lawsuit was heard by the court, it was no longer necessary.

These actions — what would become to be known as the “read-in” movement — were happening throughout the American South, as libraries voluntarily or by threat of legal sanctions integrated. Some experienced conflict and violence while others were able to integrate quietly. And whatever the means, voluntarily or screaming and kicking, they all got there.

This story is not complete without mentioned the conspicuous silence of the American Library Association — the governing body of United States libraries. While against segregation on paper, the ALA took zero action to help anyone integrate the libraries. “When a book is banned in the smallest hamlet, there is a vigorous protest,” wrote an ALA member from New York. “But when a city takes away the right of citizens to read every book in the public library, we say nothing.”

The “read-in” of the Civil Rights Movement forever changed libraries and librarianship, just as the greater movement changed the society these libraries belonged to.

Civil Rights leader Vernon Johns commented, “This story in years to come, in generations to come, is going to be really a story that will be impossible to believe.” One certainly hopes so.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library