Column Editor: Bob Holley (Professor Emeritus, Wayne State University, 13303 Borgman Avenue, Huntington Woods, MI 48070-1005; Phone: 248-547-0306)
Alabama Story, a play by Kenneth Jones, tells the story of Emily Wheelock Reed, the State Librarian of Alabama, who resisted attempts in 1959 by an Alabama Senator to censor the children’s book, The Rabbits’ Wedding, by Garth Williams. Because of its strong intellectual freedom focus, the American Library Association (ALA) publicized this play on August 31, 2016, in the Intellectual Freedom Blog with a post by Ellie Diaz, a program officer in the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). (http://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=7181) On September 2, 2016, American Libraries Direct provided a quote from the blog post and a link to the entry. (aldirect.ala.org/sites/default/al_direct/2016/september/090216-2.htm) The blog post has a laudatory tone and gives the dates and venues for the play’s performance by eleven theatre companies. What Diaz leaves out is that the play paints a negative portrait of the American Library Association as will be seen below.
To provide context, I’ll give background on the book, the librarian, and the play. Garth Williams wrote and illustrated The Rabbit’s Wedding that was published on April 30, 1958 by Harper Collins. Amazon indicates that the book is still in print and has a suggested age range of 4-8. I owned the book and read its story of a black rabbit and white rabbit who spend a happy day together and decide to get married. As of today, January 31, 2018, the book has an excellent sales ranking of 75,978 on Amazon and an average reader review of 4.5 stars out of 5.
In librarian Reed’s obituary in the New York Times, May 29, 2000, Douglas Martin writes:
“Harpers issued a statement from Mr. Williams saying the book had ‘no political significance.’ ‘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,’ Mr. Williams said. He added that his tale of rabbits ‘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.’’’
I quite bluntly don’t believe William’s denial of an implicit attack on laws against interracial marriage, especially since the statement was released by his publisher. In 1959, admitting this hidden meaning would have most likely led to the book being removed from bookstores and banned from libraries wherever Jim Crow laws applied. He and his publisher had important financial reasons for denying a very obvious message.
The play, Alabama Story, had its world premiere in Salt Lake City by the Utah Pioneer Theatre Company, located on the University of Utah campus, with performances from January 9–24, 2015. The play was enthusiastically reviewed by Barbara M. Bannon, Salt Lake Tribune. An extended 50-minute interview with Jones, the director, and the actors is available here: http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/alabama-story. Diaz wrote her favorable blog post based on this production since she reports that:
“In honor of its 45th anniversary, Freedom to Read Foundation members traveled to Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company in January 2015 to witness something others seldom saw in a play: a librarian, center stage, battling segregationists and legislators to defend a children’s book in the late 1950s.”
The play received additional critical acclaim by being named a finalist in the 2014 National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and was a 2016 nominee for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
The play deals with the conflict between Emily Reed and Alabama state senator, Edward Oswell Eddins, called E. W. Higgins in the play to avoid any legal complications, over the book, The Rabbits’ Wedding, as well as other materials. Reed purchased the item from an ALA list of recommended books and forwarded copies of the list to other Alabama libraries. Higgins demands that this book be removed from the library and suggests that it be burned. Reed resists removing the book but agrees to put in on the shelf of controversial books that anyone may request. She also refuses to give her personal views on racial integration since this has nothing to do with her professional duties. Higgins then tries to change the law so that Reed is no longer eligible to keep her position but gives up when he realizes that any new law would not apply to her. In an epilogue, we learn that Reed left Alabama the next year for a position with the District of Columbia Library System and moved to the Enoch Pratt Library in 1966 where she remained until she retired in 1977. She was added to the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Roll of Honor in 2000 but died two weeks before receiving the award.
The University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company gave twelve performances of Alabama Story from September 22-October 9, 2016 at the at Marlene Boll Theatre in downtown Detroit. The author, Kenneth Jones, was pleased to recount in his publicity release that he had “roots in the metro Detroit area, where he was raised in Southfield and Beverly Hills and later lived as a free-lance writer in Grosse Pointe before moving to New York City” and that Reed “worked for the Detroit Public Library in the 1940s after graduating from The University of Michigan” (http://www.bykennethjones.com/michigan-premiere-alabama-story-launches-sept-22-detroit-tickets-sale/). On September 22, 2016, Steve Henderson interviewed Jones on “Detroit Today” on WDET, the local public radio station. The interview focused on the importance of intellectual freedom and on Reed’s heroic efforts to keep The Rabbit’s Wedding from being banned (https://wdet.org/posts/2016/09/22/83912-new-play-tells-story-of-librarian-who-worked-to-save-banned-childrens-book/).
The University of Detroit Mercy offered free tickets on opening night to all librarians in libraries belonging to the Southeastern Michigan League of Libraries. My librarian spouse and I took advantage of this gift and attended the premiere on September 22. While I thought the production was excellent, I left the theater pondering the “hidden secret” that the play presented the American Library Association in a negative light. According to the play, ALA had not supported Emily Reed in her efforts to avoid having the book banned though she reached out to ALA on several occasions. While I did not have access to the script, I believe that I’m correct in remembering that she called ALA twice and received no answer. On the third try, a man at ALA told her that he didn’t have time to help her because he had more important matters to attend to.
I was especially surprised at this plot development because the posting by Diaz in the Intellectual Freedom Blog did not mention this negative portrayal of ALA. The next day, I started my research by sending an email to Jamie LaRue, OIF director, and Karen Muller, ALA Librarian. Jamie reported that “the events took place in 1959 that was long before the Office for Intellectual Freedom was created” though the Intellectual Freedom Committee did exist. He wasn’t able to find any evidence in ALA files about this event. Karen sent me Reed’s obituary from the Washington Post that didn’t answer the question. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, OIF Deputy Director, OIF, did some research on the issue and sent me a long, informative email on September 26, 2016, that included citations to the two principal secondary sources. Her conclusion was: “What cannot be disputed is that ALA did not address or take a position on the controversy concerning The Rabbits’ Wedding. The silence was notable because the IFC often took public positions against book censorship during this period. But based on the information provided by Robbins’ and Graham’s accounts, Reed did not ask for help from the ALA, and ALA did not actively deny or ignore a request for assistance.”
I didn’t do any additional research on ALA’s role in this censorship attempt until I decided to write this column. In the end, the most important source was A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900-1965 by Patterson Toby Graham. He devotes over ten pages to Reed (pp.101-112). He states bluntly that “the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee failed to support Emily Reed during the censorship controversy….” Graham also appears in a “video by University of Georgia’s University Librarian Toby Graham, for the #FTRF45 reception in Salt Lake” for the opening of Alabama Story” (http://www.ftrf.org/page/ROHReed). In the video, he affirms that he interviewed Reed in 1997, a fact that lends credibility to his account. He also repeats that she received no significant support in the state or nationally, which I believe she told him this during the interview. I also suspect that he may have been the one who nominated her for the FTRF Honor Roll.
Contrary to the statement by Caldwell-Stone, I did not find any irrefutable, direct evidence in the sources I consulted that Reed didn’t ask for help from ALA; but I would also come to this conclusion from the indirect evidence presented. The overall tone indicated to me that she was firm about keeping the book available but that she was not willing to turn this censorship attempt into a major controversy. She did so to protect funding for her library and perhaps for other libraries in Alabama and also because she believed that calling in outsiders would have been counterproductive to keeping the book available. In addition, Louise S. Robbins reports in Censorship and the American Library: The American Library Association’s Response to Threats to Intellectual Freedom, 1939-1969 that the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee chair wrote to Reed and “belatedly asked if she would like ALA to take any kind of action in her support. She was glad that the IFC had taken no action in the matter, Reed reported; she preferred ‘quiet moral support’” (p. 109). I would contend, however, that his statement is not completely contradictory with the possibility of her having earlier asked for help.
The person who could answer this question is the play’s author Kenneth Jones, but he didn’t respond to my email when I asked him about the historical accuracy of her calling upon ALA for support. Another piece of evidence against any such calls is that the person at ALA isn’t named and that the chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee, who would be the logical person to call, would most likely be a practicing librarian and not at ALA Headquarters. While based on historical events, the play is obviously fiction since Jones had to create the dialog and add other embellishments to create a coherent story. Having Reed call ALA and be rebuffed makes dramatic sense by increasing the audience’s judgment of her as a heroic woman who is standing up against the powerful forces of censorship and dealing with a state senator who “was a six-foot-one-inch, 250-pound ex-marine, ‘a man you don’t push around’” (Graham, 106). In addition, without the phone calls, it would be dramatically hard to point out that ALA didn’t support her. For the author, the fact that the audience would come away from the play with a negative view of ALA could be acceptable collateral damage. In a country where Gone with the Wind is all that many people know about the Civil War, I suspect few in the audience would question the accuracy of the play. Not helping her would be bad enough; turning down her cry for help is even worse. Especially if the calls to ALA are fiction, I have recommended to OIF that Jones not be considered for any intellectual freedom awards.
I also have concerns about Diaz’s blog post. I can see why OIF would want to publicize the play because Reed is a library heroine for intellectual freedom who deserves all the recognition she has received. Overall, it’s a feel-good story because the book remained available. The heroine doesn’t suffer any serious negative consequences and is in the end rather belatedly recognized by ALA for her bravery. My first concern is that the article lies by omission in a profession that is currently worried about “fake news.” In my long career, I have encountered many instances where ALA, like most organizations, has exercised damage control. The facts in the article are correct, but important facts for a library audience are missing. Second, Diaz might have offered a teachable moment showing that ALA hasn’t always lived up to its principles. In seeking secondary sources for this column, I could not avoid encountering other examples where ALA was not at the forefront in opposing segregation and Jim Crow. I don’t believe that trying to erase this less than glorious history is proper. Seeing how the desire to avoid conflict led to this timidity could remind us all to avoid doing so again. News reporting about the Rabbits’ Wedding was widespread enough that ALA leaders must have known about this censorship attempt even if Reed never called ALA. Finally, more disclosure would have saved librarians like me from having to dig for the facts. They would be prepared for a theater experience very different from what they might have expected.
In the end, I have only one more thing to say. Go see the play for its excellent portrayal of a brave but modest heroine for intellectual freedom who stood up against powerful men in an era when doing so was unusual. While only in jest, I suggest that we librarians in the audience “boo” the ALA scenes.