Opinion: Don’t think it can happen here? The U.S. government once burned books it didn’t like
This year is on pace to set the record for the highest number of attempted book bans since the American Library Assn. began compiling data on library censorship more than 20 years ago. Last year, there were demands to censor more than 2,500 library books.
In several states, legislatures have enacted censorship into law. In 2022, lawmakers in Florida passed HB 1467, which requires books to be approved by a media specialist trained by Florida’s Department of Education. Educators and librarians found in violation of the law could be charged with a third-degree felony. Other states, such as Missouri and Utah, have since enacted similar laws that punish librarians for “explicit” content.
Librarians and other educators in those states are fighting to defend the public’s right to intellectual freedom, but libraries have always been on the front lines of the conflict between censorship and free speech in the U.S. since the first public libraries were established in the 19th century.
The Comstock Act of 1873, for example, was meant to curb the nascent movement of women’s reproductive healthcare but constrained both the publishing industry and libraries. The law allowed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to force New York public libraries to withdraw a number of books from their collections, including, famously, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Ulysses.”
In the early 20th century, censorship continued with German, Italian and even Irish works and newspapers that were often banned and locked down at the urging of both the government and citizens. At the same time, amid the growing threat of fascism abroad, libraries emerged as a great symbol of democracy.
Banning books is about restricting ideas. It’s heartening to see some public leaders and others challenge whether these bans are constitutional.
Then came the postwar red scare as public libraries got pulled into Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s Cold War witch hunt. He attacked the Voice of America’s overseas libraries and called for authors whom he had condemned as communists to be stripped from the shelves. Any librarians who refused faced inquiries into their own personal lives.
Among the Americans who took up McCarthy’s cause was a San Antonio resident named Myrtle G. Hance, a member of the Minute Women of the U.S.A., whose stated mission was to remove “supporters and sympathizers” of communism from schools.
In 1953, Hance combed through the books available at the San Antonio Public Library and declared 500 books to contain communist materials. In response, San Antonio Mayor Jack White, whose wife was also a Minute Woman, demanded that each be branded with a large red sticker, so that readers would know they were “dangerous.” Another city official went further — calling for the books Hance singled out to be burned.
It was the chief librarian of San Antonio who stood in the way. Julia Grothaus, who’d served in her position for two decades, rallied the support of local writers, journalists and civic organizations; the Public Library Board of Trustees refused to go along with the mayor’s call for her resignation. Only because of her defiance, the books in San Antonio were not labeled or burned.
What occurred in San Antonio occurred in communities across the country as organizations like the Minute Women stoked the public’s fears of communism. Librarians resisted in various ways to varying degrees of success. Then, on June 14, 1953, they received major support from President Eisenhower, who told the new graduates at his Dartmouth College commencement speech, “Don’t join the book-burners… Don’t be afraid to go to your library and read every book.”
The press interpreted the president’s words to be a direct rebuff of McCarthy. The following day, McCarthy’s actions against the Voice of America’s overseas libraries made the front page of the New York Times when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles confirmed that 11 books from those libraries had been taken and actually burned.
The ALA moved quickly to capitalize on the president’s support and the public attention. On June 25, 1953, it issued the Freedom to Read Statement, which declared:
“Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be ‘protected’ against what others think may be bad for them.”
Seventy years later, there is no better description of censorship efforts taking shape around the country nor a better defense of the public’s right to choose what to read.
This year, the Florida Education Assn., which includes librarians, along with the Florida Freedom to Read Project, filed an action to challenge the censorship law. After conservative lawmakers in Arkansas enacted Act 372, which sought to “protect children from indoctrination” by allowing librarians to be brought up on criminal charges if they were found with items “harmful to minors,” libraries in Arkansas and the Freedom to Read Foundation, among several plaintiffs, filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the law’s constitutionality. A federal judge agreed, and the law has been blocked — for now.
Libraries, of course, have always offered more than just books. At their center, they offer a community space with safety to explore identities, histories and cultures. As librarians know, the loss of this intellectual freedom would be catastrophic to American culture and democracy.
Madison Ingram is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Temple University. This article was produced in partnership with Zócalo Public Square.
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