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Libraries feel attacked — but not like the ‘freedom libraries’ of 1964

A freedom library in Clarksdale, Miss., in September 1964. (Courtesy of Zoya Zeman/University of Southern Mississippi)

Sally Belfrage dreaded answering the library’s phone.

It was never someone asking about a mystery book or an upcoming story time that summer in 1964 — just relentless questions about her body and sexuality, or threats on her life.

Virginia Steele couldn’t even get books to her library. After the tires of the delivery truck were slashed repeatedly and one driver was arrested on phony theft charges, the spooked deliverymen dumped all her books into the street.

It was still better than the violence so many of their colleagues faced across the Deep South. Rita Schwerner, a librarian in Meridian, Miss., waited months to claim her husband’s body. It had been buried in an earthen dam with those of two other slain civil rights workers.

Libraries are in the crossfire yet again, as conservative groups mount a historic number of challenges to books to remove from public book shelves literature dealing with race, racism and LGBTQ identity. The book-ban campaigns have turned so nasty that some librarians have lost or left their jobs.

Schools nationwide are quietly removing books from their libraries

But it’s not the first time library workers have faced anger, as evidenced by the embattled librarian-activists who ran “freedom libraries” during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Freedom libraries were an invention of the Council of Federated Organizations, a civil rights supergroup that merged the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP. In the lead-up to Freedom Summer, during which more than 1,000 Northerners flocked to Mississippi to help local Black activists in registering as many Black voters as possible, organizers saw an opportunity in schools and, particularly, libraries.

“Even though African Americans paid taxes for public libraries, they weren’t allowed to use them,” said Mike Selby, a librarian at Cranbrook Public Library in British Columbia and author of “Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South.” “There were segregated libraries for African Americans, but they were usually shacks with unusable castoffs and no staff. … These freedom libraries, some of them were the first contact these families had with books.”

Working with boxes of donated books, volunteers set up shop in rented storefronts, church basements and homes of Black families, offering not just literature, but also story times for young children and classes for all ages. Depending on the location of a freedom library — they emerged in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas — it might host basic literacy classes, French lessons or sewing tutorials, all taught by the “librarians,” who often were college students on summer break.

Once word spread, anyone, even a child, could be a librarian.

“I remember teaching people how to write, how to fill out forms so that they could pass the voting registration exams,” said Sanderia Faye, who used the Gould Freedom Library in Arkansas as a young girl in 1964. “We didn’t have babysitters. Black women were the babysitters. So if they were participating in the civil rights movement, they took the children along with them.”

Faye, whose Hurston/Wright Legacy Award-winning historical novel “Mourner’s Bench” takes a child’s perspective on Freedom Summer, remembers the Gould Freedom Library as a shabby old building where the “windows were pasted with plastic” but a “great spirit” swept through the dusty shelves. She attended classes throughout the summer and read voraciously, especially books by Black authors, which she had never encountered before.

“It instilled a love for education that I wasn’t getting in public school,” Faye said. “We were reading ‘See Spot Run’ at school, and we were reading [James] Baldwin at the freedom center.”

How a trip to D.C. helped James Baldwin affirm his Southern identity

Baldwin’s novels were in high demand at the freedom libraries, which aimed to stock their shelves with books by and about Black people. According to Selby’s research, writers including Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Countee Cullen were requested, along with children’s books whose protagonists were Black boys and girls. Donations poured in from book drives up north.

In a July 1964 letter, Freedom Summer volunteer Bryan Dunlap begged his librarian father to send anything he could from the City College of New York to his Vicksburg, Miss., address.

“We’ve finally managed to get rid of the mountains of ratty, broken-down surplus text books, unloaded on us by well-wishers, so there’s plenty of space for the good stuff,” he wrote.

Complicating this work was the specter of violence. Freedom libraries struggled to find space in their communities because so few landlords would rent to the volunteers, surmising — correctly — that trouble would follow their new tenants.

“This weekend has seen the threatening phone calls multiply and community interest, both hostile and curious, increased,” Dunlap wrote to his parents on July 4, 1964. “I was on the porch the other night when a shot was fired from a passing car at the house.”

On Oct. 5, 1964, the Vicksburg Freedom Library that Dunlap helped manage was bombed in the middle of the night. Dynamite underneath the two-story home “demolished three bedrooms, the kitchen and some 9,000 books,” according to the Macon Telegraph. Miraculously, no one was killed, although Bessie Brown, the single Black mother who shared her home with six COFO volunteers, her six children and one grandchild, suffered some cuts, as did her infant grandson Hank.

Other attacks were deadlier. At the beginning of the year, Michael (known as Mickey) and Rita Schwerner had sublet their New York City apartment to take up residence in Meridian and run the local freedom library as a husband-and-wife team. Rita was more of the “librarian,” while Mickey held classes for high school dropouts and Black job applicants looking to bypass discriminatory hiring practices. He also was active in voter registration efforts.

“[Mickey] Schwerner was particularly reviled by the Klan for his work,” the U.S. Justice Department wrote in a report to the Mississippi attorney general. “Indeed, the killing of Schwerner was a routine topic discussed at Klan meetings attended by both Meridian and Philadelphia Klansmen.”

On June 21, 1964, Schwerner went missing, along with two other volunteers, Andrew Goodman (another white New Yorker) and James Chaney (a Black native of Meridian). It would take months to uncover the truth: All three men had been murdered by the KKK, with assistance from the local sheriff. The tragedy would gain national attention when the FBI got involved, dubbing the investigation “Mississippi Burning.”

Although these murders were extraordinary, extreme violence against freedom libraries was not. The buildings housing the libraries were bombed and burned so frequently that few lasted past those tumultuous summer months. Those that did, such as the Mileston and rebuilt Vicksburg locations in Mississippi, were absorbed by the newly launched Head Start program.

Yet the loss of these spaces wasn’t as devastating as it could have been. Previously segregated public libraries were finally starting to integrate, thanks to a number of coordinated lawsuits and “read-ins” mounted by Black activists, rendering the freedom libraries obsolete.

For one summer, though, they changed lives.

“I would say that what I learned as a child in that building has influenced everything that I am,” Faye said. “From great people that were unafraid, like I’m unafraid today.”

Kristin Hunt is a freelance reporter specializing in history and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.

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