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Libraries Do Face Attacks, but Not Like the "Freedom Libraries" of 1964

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.

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 flock 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.”

Read entire article at Washington Post