Barbara Beasley Murphy came south last week. She wrote a book some Alabama ministers said "the devil wouldn't read," and she came to remove it from restricted shelves in county high school libraries.
After protests by more than 200 parents and a small group of ministers, "No Place to Run" was taken off the open shelves last fall by the county school board. It was placed in a reserve section with several other books, including "The Grapes of Wrath," "East of Eden" and Doris Day's autobiography. Students who want to read it--or any of these other books--need a note from their parents.
Ministers and parents protested use of street language in the book, which tells of a young boy new to New York City who deals with his guilt after he helps his friends spray paint a vagrant who was asleep on a park bench. Murphy said she based the book on a true incident.
After the school removed it from general circulation, Murphy, the 49-year-old mother of two teen-agers, cried censorship.
She contacted PEN American Center, a national literary organization of poets, essayists, editors and novelists to promote freedom of expression. PEN agreed to pay Murphy's way from her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., to confront her critics. She is one of the first authors to benefit from PEN's recently formed American Right to Read program, which allows censored authors to address their critics. The program is aimed at stemming censorship nationwide, which by PEN accounts has increased threefold since 1980 and has affected nearly one-quarter of all U.S. school districts.
This northerner came south the week Bear Bryant died, a quiet week of flags at half-staff and of melancholy southern pride. Murphy, dressed in high-necked collars and charcoal slacks, reminded audiences she had once lived in the South, while attending college in North Carolina.
And now she began to reacquaint herself with southern culture. Escorted by parents sympathetic to her cause, she attended a basketball game at one of the high schools where her book was removed from the shelves, ate turnip greens and barbecued ribs and witnessed the two-step firsthand at the Alabama Show Palace, a country-western nightclub.
The cultural gap between the readers and the people she has written about was harder to bridge.
Murphy called the singling out of words in her book "superficial criticism" and maintained the need for street language to convey the true speech patterns and stark city life style of its main characters. " 'No Place to Run' is a most moral book," she said, "a good story with moral characters."
"The banning of books is a very serious step. It leads not to a more perfect society, but to a diminishment of human life . . . You have to give children wings. Book banning will not give children wings," Murphy said to one university crowd.
She told the Alabama audiences stories about New York City, where as a young high school teacher she met the teen-agers she would write about in "No Place to Run." They were a sometimes difficult, sometimes dangerous group. One of her students, a boy she had reprimanded for tardiness, retaliated by scrawling a four-letter word on a blackboard.
The stories fell mostly on the supportive ears of students, professors and concerned parents. Most of her opponents stayed home. A college freshman, who said his mother insisted he read "No Place to Run," came to the podium and hugged Murphy during a Saturday speech at a local community center.
In all, the author spent six days talking to those who would listen--over Styrofoam coffee cups and Lutheran Church podiums and living room coffee tables.
Those who spoke out against her book did so by telephone.
The Rev. Aaron Howell, a minister who initiated the controversy about the book, contacted at home, called Murphy's visit a chance "to teach and promote sin."
The Rev. Curtis Penny, who joined Howell in urging removal of the books (seven in all) from the open shelves, said, "If Calhoun County had been the only place this has ever come up before, we would look like a bunch of fanatical people. This is happening all over the United States."
Penny added he doesn't think "any good writers, if they are Christian people, have to use the terminology and the words" in "No Place to Run."
Of Murphy, Penny said, "She has her beliefs. I'm going to have to face my creator and she will have to face hers."
One morning, she was a guest on a radio call-in show. One caller lashed out at her, saying, "No matter what you say, the book is filth. "No child has any business reading this book. Would it be right to use this book in Sunday school? Can I repeat some of these words on a radio station?"
Murphy, who originally planned to stay for five days, stayed a day longer to confront the county school board last Tuesday night. In anticipation of a battle, a television camera was propped in one corner of the board room--but most of the folding chairs stood empty.
It was close to midnight, three hours after the meeting began, when Murphy stood up to ask the board to reconsider its actions. She read a letter from Authors League of America president Harrison Salisbury, signed by E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Tuchman and Garson Kanin, among others.
A lone protester told Murphy her children attend high school "to learn, not to learn dirty language or the facts of life." Murphy was told by the board that its decision was final. The book would stay off the shelves.
School board member Lonnie Higginbotham said he told Murphy she is "a fine lady and the book was okay," but he objected to "the curse words and using the Lord's name in vain."
"As far as I'm concerned, the issue of the books is settled," said school board chairman Tommy Nance. "If it was up to me, we'd have a big bonfire," Nance added, but said he realizes he can't. "We have freedom of speech and freedom of expression."
Nance said he doesn't think the school board "will go looking" for more books. "If somebody objects to a book, we'll just look into it. I think the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. The books are out there and available."
He said the board has received "no complaints" from parents or students about removing the books to reserve shelves. "I've had a lot of people tell me they thought we made the right decision," Nance said.
"I don't think it's censorship," he added.
PEN director Karen Kennerly said the school board's response "doesn't surprise us." She said the books "will be restored quietly if they are going to be restored."
She said Murphy's visit "did succeed in making the community know what they hitherto considered to be a private issue is in fact part of a national public concern and issue."
Kennerly said the visit forced the community "to reconsider the effects of censorship as well as the purpose of literature. We are going to be staying in constant touch with the parents concerned about censorship and will be working with them in any way we can in helping them effect restoration of the books."