The grim history of segregation in U.S. libraries

The right to read was a virtually unheard-of struggle in the battle for civil rights.

Mike Selby

For Mrs. Paterson’s Grade 9 English class.

It was mid-September in 1963 when two friends — Bob McClain and Quintus Reynolds — began to walk up the small flight of stairs outside the entrance of the public library in Anniston, Alabama. Neither of them made it to the second step.

A group of more than 30 suddenly appeared, and began to hit the two friends with closed fists, and wooden sticks.

Reynolds was the first to go down, hitting the cement hard.

McClain began to simultaneously defend himself and drag Reynolds back to their car, which became more and more difficult as he was now being hit with bicycle chains.

McClain finally got his friend into the safety of their car, when a bullet shattered the passenger window.

McClain dragged Reynolds back out of the car and — while bricks and glass bottles were now being heaved at them — tried literally to run for both their lives.

Fortunately, a motorist who had witnessed the assault sped into the angry mob and rescued them, driving both to the emergency room at the Anniston Memorial Hospital.

While both men were covered in numerous cuts and abrasions, Reynolds had been stabbed twice, and would spend months recovering.

McClain and Reynolds weren’t only just friends — they were both ministers of their respective churches, both husbands and fathers, and both lifelong residents of Anniston.

They were also both African-American, and on that fateful day in 1963, they had both tried to simply check out a book at the public library.

As the Civil Rights Movement exploded across the United States, the media of the time was able to show the rest of the world images of horrific racial violence.

And while some of the bravest people of the 20th century risked their lives for the right to simply order a cheeseburger, ride a bus, or use a clean water fountain, there was another virtually unheard of struggle — this one for the right to read.

Although illegal, racial segregation was strictly enforced in a number of American states, and public libraries were not immune.

Although African-Americans (who typically made up half or more of a city’s population) paid the very taxes which funded libraries, they were in no way allowed to use them.

If a community felt somewhat paternal, it would build a “separate but equal” Negro library. These were far from equal though, located in abandoned shacks and basements, with an inferior book collection and an untrained staff.

Should an African-American express a need for a book which only the white library had, the white library would first order a new copy for their branch (at cost to the Negro branch).

Only when they received their new copy would they send their used copy to the Negro branch.

The disgusting belief that “once black hands had touched a book it could not return to general circulation” was written into many libraries’ policies.

The integration movement against public libraries began on April 2, 1960, when a dozen high school students in Danville, Virginia, were refused service at that city’s public library.

The students filed a lawsuit against the city, and a federal judge ordered the library to immediately desegregate.

The city responded to the federal court order by closing the library.

Finding themselves quickly back in court, the city claimed the library closed due to being “overtaxed.” Not amused and “unconvinced by the charade,” the court ordered Danville to reopen their library and desegregate it.

This ruling (Giles v. Library Advisory Committee of Danville) sparked off a series of library protests throughout the American South.

Some cities quietly desegregated, hoping to avoid any adverse and embarrassing publicity.

Montgomery, Alabama was not one of them. When their library was ordered to desegregate in 1962, they responded badly.

This was their second lawsuit, having been ordered to integrate all public facilities in 1959. Instead of complying, the city shut down all 14 of its public parks, cemented in their swimming pools, tore up their golf courses, and sold off all the animals in their zoo.

This time, instead of closing their library, they engaged in “vertical integration”— a surprisingly common practice of removing all of the furniture from the library, making it impossible for different races to mix.

The federal court was no more amused with Montgomery than it was with Danville, even when Montgomery told the court there “were no colour restrictions” at their library, and that “there is probably one African-American who owned a card for the main branch.”

Upon learning that Montgomery had a black population of 46,000, the court “found it inconceivable that there was only ‘possibly one’ among this number that held a library card… unless there is and has been an effective exclusion of members of that race.”

The newly desegregated library opened its doors on August 2, 1962.

A crowd made up of the Ku Klux Klan surrounded the building, but so did the state police and the FBI.

High school student Robert Cobb was the first African-American to enter the library, checking out a copy of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’

He was followed by a contingent of small children who — hearing the city had removed the library’s furniture — brought in their own lawn chairs.

Events then shifted to Birmingham, the most segregated city in history, whose mayor, when asked about the city’s libraries, replied, “If they integrate, it will be at gunpoint.” But that is for next week.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library.

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