Emily Wheelock Reed, an Alabama librarian castigated by segregationists in 1959 for defending a children's book about the love between a white rabbit and a black rabbit, died May 19 at a retirement community in Cockeysville, Md. She was 89.
Reed was state librarian during a turbulent period in the South when blacks' struggles for equality stirred ferocious resistance from whites. Blacks were fighting for equal access to many areas of public life, including schools and libraries.
When Garth Williams' book "The Rabbits' Wedding" was published by Harper and Row in 1958, the White Citizens Council in Alabama attacked it as "communistic" and promoting racial integration. The council newsletter criticized the story in a front-page article headlined "What's Good Enough for Rabbits Should Do for Mere Humans."
The campaign against the book and Reed was led by Alabama state Sen. E.O. Eddins, who said the tale about the two fuzzy rabbits was propaganda for integration and intermarriage.
Reed said she liked the book but removed it from general circulation. She said her action, which made the book available to local librarians upon request, fell short of a ban.
"We have had difficulty with the book, but we have not lost our integrity," she said, explaining her decision to put the book in the reserve stacks.
"The Rabbits' Wedding" told of two bunnies who "lived in a large forest" and frolicked in the fields together every day. But after a while the black rabbit would always become sad. When pressed by the white rabbit, it confessed that it wished the two could be together "forever and always."
Grasping paws in the middle of a hazy green forest, the white rabbit vowed to be "all yours . . . forever and always!" Then they were wed in a moonlight ceremony attended by a circle of little gray rabbits who danced with the couple all night long. On the final page, Williams wrote, "And the little black rabbit never looked sad again."
Williams denied that his tale, aimed at children ages 3 to 7, was an allegory of racial harmony.
"I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings," he told the New York Times in 1959. He explained that he made one rabbit white and the other black for the simple reason that it made them easier to tell apart--this in the days before full-color printing.
"I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque--and my rabbits were inspired by early Chinese paintings of black and white horses in misty landscapes," said Williams, a prolific illustrator who had done the pictures for E.B. White's "Stuart Little" and "Charlotte's Web," as well as for Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" series.
He added that his rabbits' tale "was not written for adults who will not understand it, because it is only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden messages of hate."
Williams, who died in 1994, wrote only a few of the more than 70 books he illustrated. Of that few, "The Rabbits' Wedding" was the last. But the controversy did not hurt sales of the book, which remains in print.
Reed continued as state librarian, but only for a short while longer. Later in 1959 she again invoked the ire of segregationists when she distributed a reading list that included "Stride to Freedom," a story about the Montgomery bus boycott, written by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
That provoked the Alabama Legislature to consider a law that would require the state librarian to be an Alabama native and a graduate of the University of Alabama or Auburn University. It would have disqualified Reed, who was born in Asheville, N.C. and was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Indiana University.
She had become Alabama state librarian in 1957 after working in libraries in Detroit, Hawaii and Louisiana and teaching library science at the University of Florida.
In January 1960, Reed resigned to become a library consultant in Washington, where she remained for six years. From about 1966 until her retirement in 1977 she was coordinator of adult services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.
Earlier this year she was honored by the American Library Assn., which offered "belated gratitude" for her "tenacious and . . . extraordinary effort to stand up to segregationist state legislators."
She had no immediate survivors.