In the fall of 1941, the Attorney General of Oklahoma received a letter from one of Dartmouth College’s assistant librarians.
“I should be glad if you would officially verify,” the letter began, “the authors and particular editions of books used in evidence in prosecuting persons connected with the Progressive Book Store. It is already evident that this case will become an historic one, and we are consequently anxious to place on our open shelves — for the use of students and for the public generally — the authentic editions concerned, while they are still readily available.”
The librarian was referring to the books seized and used in the Oklahoma Book Trials, where four individuals (Bob and Ina Wood, Elia Jaffe and Alan Shaw) were charged, tried, and convicted of trying to overthrow the United States government. The only evidence against them were the books they sold, owned, and read. Many of the books were communist in nature, and each of the accused belonged to the Oklahoma Young Communist League. Even though there was no Red Scare sweeping the United States at the time, each defendant was found guilty, and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
The Attorney General forwarded the librarian’s letter to the State Attorney, who was happy to send Laing an inventory of the books, replying “If Dartmouth wants them, Dartmouth can have them.” One of the numerous ironies of this case was that the state had chronically refused to provide the defence with an inventory of the books during the year-long trial. Aware of this obstacle, the Dartmouth librarian sent the list to the defence attorney, hoping to aid him with his client’s appeal.
And what an appeal it was.
Beginning with the original raid on the Progressive Book Store, the state had trampled on the civil liberties of each of the accused, as well as their attorney. That the judge had allowed so many violations of constitutional rights to be upheld had given the defence some hope of a successful appeal. George Croom — the defendants exhausted yet determined defence attorney — filed an appellate brief in January of 1942. Only to be told he was too late.
Eight organizations from around the country, had filed already filed briefs on his behalf.
The Oklahoma Book Trials hadn’t happened in a vacuum. When news reached the rest of the country, people were outraged. Oklahoma soon became an embarrassment, and the butt of many jokes. The ACLU, the American Newspaper League, and the League of American Writers were just a few of the organizations that filed for an appeal. Publications began to run editorials condemning Oklahoma, calling the trial “The Silly Season.” The Los Angeles Times stated “Oklahoma has interpreted criminal syndicalism to mean the selling of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.'”
The city of New York held a fundraiser for the defence, offering autographed manuscripts from various writers including Dorothy Parker, Theodore Dreiser, Dashiell Hammett, and Erskine Caldwell. 110 authors contributed to a volume titled ‘Oklahoma Witch Hunt,’ which was also sold at the fund raiser.
On a larger stage, Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, causing Stalin and millions of communists to become America’s allies.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court was very unhappy with the original prosecution, and overturned all convictions in February of 1943. Elia Jaffe, Alan Shaw, and Bob and Ina Wood were finally free from over 2 years of sheer madness.
“Books burn,” President Roosevelt wrote to the Booksellers of American annual meeting, with a nod to the Oklahoma trials. “[They] cannot be killed by fire …In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedoms.”
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Publc Library