Libraries = Strong Communities, Alabama Librarians, and the Civil Rights Movement
by Molly Saunders, Children's Department Library Technician at the Homewood Public Library in Homewood, AL
I first encountered the names Juliette Hampton Morgan and Emily Wheelock Reed in graduate school, in the pages of Richard Rubin’s Foundations of Library and Information Science. As an aspiring Alabama librarian transplanted to Boston in the middle of the snowiest winter on record, their stories were an unexpected, startling reminder of home. You don’t grow up in Birmingham, Alabama without a knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. I went to high school just blocks away from the sites of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the Children’s Crusade, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But until that moment, I had never heard of these two Alabama librarians who each, in their own ways, participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
Emily Wheelock Reed was not an Alabama native, but after working in libraries across the country, moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to serve as the director for the Alabama Public Library Service Division, and became embroiled in a small subset of the fight for Civil Rights. Upon its publication in 1958, Garth Williams’ picture book The Rabbits’ Wedding, which features the wedding of a white colored rabbit to a black one, was immediately targeted by Alabama senator Edward Oswell Eddins for promoting interracial marriage. He demanded that Reed remove the book from her library shelves and the statewide lending system. Reed, with the support of the American Library Association, refused to remove The Rabbits’ Wedding from her collection, despite intense pressure from the Alabama Senate, including proposed legislature that would cost Reed her job.
Children’s literature often serves as a fertile ground for adult ideological battles. Think of the more recent furor against another animal picture book, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s And Tango Makes Three (2005). But in 1958, in Montgomery, Alabama, Reed upheld a major ethical standard of librarianship: free access. The book was moved to a special collection area where it could be retrieved upon request, rather than remaining on the open shelves. Still, even a partial victory is something, and Reed was honored with the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Roll of Honor Award in 2000. Her story has also been the subject of a play, The Alabama Story by Kenneth Jones, that has been performed across the country. For me, Reed’s story is most interesting in its details--the simple picture book caught in the symbolic crosshairs of racism, and the tenacity of her refusal to entertain Eddin’s claims. It is also a study in the support required within a healthy library system. Reed was empowered to make professional decisions in the best interests of serving her community--all the members of her community.
Juliette Hampton Morgan’s story is very different. Morgan, the head reference librarian at Montgomery’s public library and the daughter of a prominent family, the type of family who socialized with the Fitzgeralds and Tallulah Bankhead, vocally supported the Montgomery bus boycott. She wrote many letters to the Montgomery Advertiser comparing the actions of Rosa Parks and the other boycotters to Gandhi’s nonviolent protests. She also waged a one woman war against the practice of bus drivers allowing African American riders to pay their fare and then, when they walked around the bus to enter through the rear door, as required, speeding away with their money before the passengers could board. Morgan repeatedly pulled buses’ emergency stop cords, infuriating the drivers and her fellow white passengers. Her family refused to support her actions, and she was largely ostracized from her community.
Morgan’s personal activism impacted her professional life. She was regularly harassed at the library, and her job was threatened by angry patrons, who refused to use the library while she was employed there. Although she was never officially fired, several members of the library board called for her resignation for criticizing city policy. Without institutional or personal support, Morgan crumpled under the overwhelming pressure and fear. Shortly after coming home to find a cross burning on her front lawn, she resigned from the library and, that night, overdosed on sleeping pills, a presumed death by suicide.
Morgan’s story is not as fulfilling as Reed’s. It doesn’t have a happy ending. But this National Library Week, with the theme “Libraries = Strong Communities,” my thoughts keep returning to Morgan and her activism. While any integrationist could easily have become a target of Montgomery society (and the KKK), Morgan was singled out again and again by her profession. As a public librarian, it was implied, she should be upholding the values of Montgomery’s (white) community. She became a symbol of a woman, a librarian and public servant, stepping out of line, and her punishment was swift and vicious.
If we truly believe that Libraries = Strong Communities, we need to consider all the members of those communities and how we, as librarians, can uphold their interests. Serving the public, offering a free community space, curating a collection of valuable resources, these roles place us in an important and vulnerable position, as much now as they did in the 1950s and ‘60s. How can we ensure that access is open to all members of our community, that their needs are met and their perspectives reflected in our collections? What institutional support do we require to stand for the strong communities we represent?
Both Reed and Morgan were participants in the Civil Rights Movement, even if their spheres were small, or their actions limited. They remind me, now and when I first encountered them in that Boston classroom, of my particular role as a public librarian in Alabama. I hope to embody their commitment to equality, to access, to the interests of my community. I believe that, if Libraries = Strong Communities, then that strength can only begin with us.
Molly Saunders is a librarian, book reviewer, and avid reader from Birmingham, Alabama. She holds an M.S. in Library and Information Science and an M.A. in Children's Literature from Simmons University. She currently works in the Children's Department at the Homewood Public Library in Homewood, Alabama.
Sources and Further Reading:
“‘Alabama Story’: A New Play About Books, Race, Censorship and the American Character.” By Kenneth Jones. 24 January 2019. https://www.bykennethjones.com/alabama-story-new-play-books-race-censorship-american-character/
Martin, Douglas. “Emily W. Reed, 89, Librarian in '59 Alabama Racial Dispute.” The New York Times. 29 May 2000. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/29/us/emily-w-reed-89-librarian-in-59-alabama-racial-dispute.html
“Roll of Honor: Emily Wheelock Reed.” The Freedom to Read Foundation. July 2000. https://www.ftrf.org/page/ROHReed
Rubin, Richard. Foundations of Library and Information Sciences, 4th Edition. Neal-Schuman, 2015.
Stanton, Mary. Journey toward Justice: Juliette Hampton Morgan and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. University of Georgia Press, 2006.
Summe, Sheryl Spradling. “Alive to the Cause of Justice: Juliette Hampton Morgan and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Stepping Out of the Shadows: Alabama Women 1819-1990, edited by Mary Martha Thomas. University of Alabama Press, 1995, pp. 176-190.