At the time of the Scopes trial on banning the teaching of evolution in the state of Tennessee, the Georgia Legislature debated a bill establishing public libraries. It would have allowed counties, school districts and municipalities to establish and maintain public libraries either by taxation or by donations.
A representative of a rural county arose to deliver a speech in opposition to the bill. There were only three books in the world worth reading, he proclaimed. These were the Bible, the Christian hymnbook and the almanac.
"Those three are enough for anyone," Hal Wimberly told his fellow lawmakers. "Read the Bible. It teaches you how to act. Read the hymnbook. It contains the finest poetry ever written. Read the almanac. It shows you how to figure out what the weather will be. There isn't another book that is necessary for anyone to read, and therefore I am opposed to all libraries."
The bill had come to the floor for debate after a committee recommended passage. When the final votes were taken, Rep. Wimberly's point of view prevailed. The public library bill was defeated, 63 to 57.
This led the irrepressibly wicked H.L. Mencken to reprint an Atlanta wire service story about the incident in his American Mercury magazine. And when he republished it the year of the Scopes trial in his collection, "Americana 1925," Mencken was moved to attach this headline:
"Progress of fundamentalism in bucolic Georgia, as revealed by a press dispatch from the state capitol."
Leave it to the modern-day fundamentalists to demonstrate that that almost unbelievable occurrence 61 years ago is not an impossible anachronism in the America of the mid-1980s. Today's electronic evangelists are doing it again, and with about the same subtlety. They are writing a new chapter in the shameful story of book-banning -- and they're doing so with the same bullying techniques of the past.
The most notable recent example, and by no means the only one, involves the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, an energetic hellfire-and-brimstone television preacher based in Baton Rouge, La., whose exhortations are seen on TV screens in homes across the country.
On June 1, during one of his nationally telecast sermons, Swaggart denounced the sale of rock music magazines in apocalyptic terms for encouraging immoral behavior among America's teen-agers. Such magazines were inspired by the devil, he said, linking them to the wave of pornography supposedly endangering the moral fabric of the republic. He specified at least one magazine and warned that it could "be bought by children of all ages at places like Wal-Mart, K mart, the grocery store and practically any other retail store that sells magazines."
Twelve days after that broadcast, Wal-Mart issued a memorandum ordering all rock-oriented publications banned from its stores. In its instructions to wholesalers, Wal-Mart named 32 such publications, including the well-known magazine Rolling Stone, and ordered the wholesalers to remove "any other rock titles you may be placing in Wal-Mart stores."
Wal-Mart is not some little business. It is a department store chain with 890 outlets in 22 states, primarily in the South and Southwest. Although a Wal-Mart spokesman characterized its action as "strictly a merchandising decision" when interviewed by Richard Harrington of The Washington Post, there seems no doubt about the connection between Swaggart's nationally broadcast sermon and the banning of the publications. Harrington also quoted the spokesman as saying, "We don't see it as a censorship issue; we see it as a free enterprise issue."
It is, of course, both. Wal-Mart has a right to sell what it wishes, within the boundaries of the law, and the public has a right to condemn its withdrawal decision as the worst sort of caving in to pressure from book-banners and bigots.
By peculiar coincidence, even as this newest censorship battle flares, the fundamentalists and public school educators are again locked in legal battle in Tennessee over whether textbooks fail to reflect stories in the Bible literally. How Mencken would have relished it. By all means ban those books describing immoral acts. And start with the volume that recounts murder, rape, sodomy, incest and every other form of human depravity and barbarity, the Bible.