In the fight for freedom libraries

Libraries were a key weapon in the fight for civil rights.

Mike Selby

Sobbing, disheartened and depressed, Virginia Steele felt she had made the biggest mistake of her life.

After years of teaching elementary school, Steele enrolled in UCLA to obtain a master’s in library science. Right before graduating in 1964, she heard about something called ‘Freedom Summer’—a campaign being launched in Mississippi in order to assist African-Americans register to vote. Part of this campaign would include the establishment of ‘Freedom Libraries,’ a chance for the majority of Mississippi citizens to have meaningful contact with books and reading.

Steele wrote to the organizers of Freedom Summer, and expressed her willingness to help out. If they were in need of any professional library assistance, “I am sure I can get some pretty good help from the teachers here at the library school.” She heard from them a few weeks later, but it wasn’t a thank-you note. “We were very glad to find that a professional librarian is joining the Mississippi Summer Project. We would like to ask you to be in charge of one of these Freedom Libraries for the summer.” As she read in disbelief, the letter’s P.S. drove the message home, “bring some 3×5 cards with you.”

Having not yet graduated and having never even worked in a library, Steele somehow found herself driving to Mississippi. Her last exam at graduate school was on the history of printing, not on setting up a library. The Freedom Summer organizers had her read four books in preparation: ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ by W.E.B. Dubois; ‘The Mind of the South’ by J.W. Cash; ‘The Other America’ by Michael Harrington; and ‘Killers of the Dream’ by Lillian Smith. She also attended Civil Rights training, which included self-defence against violence. “Image how I felt,” she wrote to friends back home, “while I was learning how to drop on the ground to protect my face, my ears, and my breasts, I was asked to coordinate all the libraries in the entire project. I wanted to cry.”

Steele arrived in Greenville, Mississippi in early June. The site for the library was an apartment located above a beauty salon and shoe repair store. She had no sooner arrived than she was startled by a huge bang. The books had arrived (20,000 books were donated by civil rights volunteers, teachers, publishers, authors, schools, book stores and libraries from all over North America).

The books were supposed to get there ahead of her, but the delivery truck’s tires had been repeatedly slashed. Also, one of the trucks had been seized and the driver arrested on a phoney charge of transporting stolen goods. The drivers were understandably terrified and emptied the boxes onto the street before speeding away. But a human chain soon formed, and people of all ages—including a local drunk who could barely stand—helped get the books into the new library.

Besides this act of community benevolence, Steele found it very hard to be there. The heat (38°) was unbearable, and someone had walked off with her wallet. Two other Freedom Libraries had been bombed, and one was burned to the ground. Over in Meridian news was worse. A school teacher named Rita Schwerner had come from New York with her husband Mickey to set up a Freedom Library. But now Rita’s husband was missing (Mickey Schwerner was abducted and murdered along with two other civil rights workers in what became a landmark case).

To combat her feelings of distress, Steele made a rubber stamp which read “Freedom Library –Read for Fun – Read to Learn – Read for Freedom.” She then began to catalogue all of the donated books.

Membership cards were more problematic, so she decided to just to write each person’s name down and which book they borrowed. Because the literacy rate in Mississippi at the time was abysmally low, Steele didn’t separate easy-readers from adult books, so as not to cause undue embarrassment. There would also be no fines for overdue books. Not only did she not want to discourage anyone not returning to the library in fear of fines, but a book not returned was felt to be doing more good than it would be sitting on a shelf.

A strange fact of history is that Mississippi had already desegregated its public libraries by the time Freedom Libraries began to appear. The problem was this was done so quietly most African-Americans didn’t know this had happened. Then there was the unbelievable psychological courage it would take to test this. Anyone who happened to make it through the front doors of a public library would find a collection not suited to them. These libraries did not contain African-American history, or art, or contributions to science and medicine, or civil rights, or even any fiction written by African-Americans. They also lacked books for adults who had not had the opportunity to develop a high reading level. For Freedom Libraries, these subjects were their entire reason for existing.

By the end of that long American summer, over 60 Freedom Libraries appeared all across Mississippi. By the fall, they were all gone. Libraries need to be funded by tax dollars; donations and volunteers will only go so far.

Steele was asked once if all her work in Mississippi was worth it. Her answer: “One day I saw two little girls pulling some obsolete books out of a waste can where some sorter had put them. ‘I’m goin’ a make me a library of my own,’ said the one who began the salvage operation.” Steele added to her collection.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at Cranbrook Public Library.