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Opinion | Alabama libraries battle extremists: Will lawmakers do the same?

Alabama’s library battles underscores a wider national debate on freedom, education, and the role of public institutions.


Across Alabama, right-wing extremists have worked to restrict book collections in public libraries. In every instance, the community that actually uses the libraries has successfully overturned the efforts of this radical minority. However, take heart, you small band of cultural extremists: the pandering elements in the state legislature may come to your aid.

During the 2024 Legislative Session, expect to see proposed laws that will force public libraries to conform to the latest whims of the radical right. This is not because it is a popular move, but because lawmakers are afraid to stand with the majority, given they are elected by the gerrymandered minority.

As a harbinger of things possibly on the horizon, the Director of the Alabama Public Library Service, Nancy Pack, announced that the state would renounce its membership with the American Library Association. The ALA has come under fire from ultra-right-wing culture warriors. Historically, the ALA has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to state libraries. While threats by lawmakers to defund state libraries prompted Pack to retreat, local library boards  have not been swayed by political harassment. Instead, they represent the will of the community members who frequent the libraries.

In a fundraising email, the right-wing organization Alabama Policy Institute announced it is developing an Alabama Blueprint “for the protection of our kids,” aiming to shield them from “age-inappropriate information and images.”

“API is helping build a coalition of like-minded organizations, individuals, and elected officials interested in addressing the shifting sands of how our society views children,” the email reads.  “The cultural shift is clear to those who have been paying attention, and our laws are not keeping up with the downward spiral,” the email stated.

API relies on donations. To bolster financial giving, they aim to convince donors that they are fighting for a noble cause. In this case, it’s protecting children. Don’t be fooled: this is not about children. It’s about power, control and money—it always is.

The majority of Alabamians and Americans oppose book bans. A comprehensive report led by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution found that about 88 percent of Americans oppose banning books that address issues around slavery from being taught in public schools. Fewer than one in ten Americans favor such bans—a sentiment that spans across political lines, with roughly the same number of Republicans (7 percent), independents (7 percent), and Democrats (9 percent) supporting such bans.

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Which books will be censored if API and the extremists have their way? Those discussing race, racism, gender and sexuality. Why? Because these topics challenge the narrow worldview of a few zealots.

Transgender youth and the wider LGBTQ community find themselves in the crosshairs of certain right-wing factions. Contrary to API’s proclaimed reverence for Constitutional law, the actual crux of their intent isn’t genuine concern that stems from the law but bigotry. There’s no intrinsic harm or wrongdoing here; it’s more about perceiving these groups as “other,” which they believe justifies their suppression and prejudice. Notably, these very groups also aim to stifle the teaching of Black history, with public schools and libraries being a prime battleground.

History, they say, doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Today, as we witness certain lawmakers and groups pushing to reshape the very essence of our libraries, there’s an eerie resonance with an unsavory chapter from our past. This chapter recalls the dark days of the Jim Crow era when Black citizens were denied simple, essential rights, including the right to access state libraries. Books detailing the struggles of Black individuals were systematically banned. The past, it seems, is not always buried; sometimes, it casts a long shadow over our present.

In “Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in Alabama’s Public Libraries, 1900-1965,” Patterson Toby Graham paints a vivid, detailed portrait of a deeply divided Alabama and how the tendrils of Jim Crow wound their way into the heart of the state’s public libraries. While library segregation might be an overlooked aspect of history for many, Graham’s painstaking research underlines its importance in the broader context of civil rights.

One would assume, rather naively, that libraries, being temples of knowledge and enlightenment, would resist the winds of prejudice. However, Graham’s account reveals that this was seldom the case. Although Black citizens were funding these very libraries with their taxes, they were unjustly barred from accessing them. This blatant disregard for equality and justice was met with resistance. Courageous individuals undertook non-violent protests, such as sit-ins and “read-ins,” which gradually forced officials to acknowledge the absurdity of their policies and move towards desegregation.

Yet, it wasn’t all peaceful. Places like Anniston in 1963 became hotbeds of violence as the fight for library access turned tumultuous. A handful of librarians did muster the bravery to oppose segregation, but their voices were rare, and the repercussions they faced were severe.

Fast forward to today, and it seems the ghosts of the past haven’t entirely departed. Organizations like API and the so-called “Clean-up” campaigns echo the sentiments of the segregationist Redeemers’ political coalition. The target might have changed, but the underlying motive seems eerily familiar: segregation, albeit in a more modern guise.

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The attack on knowledge, the attempt to mold libraries according to a specific ideology, isn’t just about restricting access. It’s about restricting thought, shaping narratives and molding minds. As defenders of knowledge and freedom, we must remain vigilant. Let history serve as both a reminder of our past mistakes and a beacon to guide our way forward.

As we ponder on these present-day challenges, it’s worth remembering the Black citizens of Alabama who bravely stood against the tide of prejudice. Their legacy is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a reminder that the fight for justice and equality is continuous.

Let’s hope that enough members of the Alabama legislature value our nation’s principles and also the will of the majority.  

All across our state, communities are battling extremists on behalf of their public libraries. Will lawmakers do the same?

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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