• A Brief History of the Grand Old American Tradition of Banning Books

    Laura Pappano Investigates the “Chaotic and Illogical Business” of Censorship

    Book banning is a chaotic and illogical business. How a book is received or understood is often subject to the historical moment—and the tastes of individuals. The notion of an objective measure or checklist to decide what is “appropriate”—something far-right school boards have worked to police and enforce—has long been slippery to define.

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    In the late 1930s, the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight a matador, was interpreted as carrying a pacifist political message. But in a whirl of confusion, it was marked as both pro-Franco and anti-Franco—and also as “communist, anarchist, manic-depressive, and schizoid,” according to an analysis of children’s book censorship in the Elementary School Journal in 1970. In other words, everyone saw what they wanted to see.

    That also happened to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a children’s book by William Steig about a donkey who finds a magic pebble and, frightened by a lion, wishes himself into becoming a rock. The book also contained images of police officers dressed as pigs. In 1971, the International Conference of Police Associations took offense at that portrayal of police as pigs—“pig” being a derogatory term for law enforcement officers.

    Then, as now, some viewed it as problematic and requiring a response. According to the author of the journal article, school librarians who agreed with the police association view of the drawings and “considered [the portrayal] a political statement” pulled the books from their shelves in numerous cities, including Lincoln, Nebraska; Palo Alto, California; Toledo, Ohio; Prince Georges County, Maryland; and several cities in Illinois.

    How a book is received or understood is often subject to the historical moment—and the tastes of individuals.

    Books often get singled out because they make someone uncomfortable. Lately far-right activists have particularly objected to graphic images, including of intimate body parts. Which is what happened in the 1970s with Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which I read to my kids many times. The problem was that the book included drawings of the toddler hero’s penis on several pages.

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    School and public libraries quietly devised a solution: They used white tempera to paint diapers on Mickey, the main character. At a meeting of the American Library Association in Chicago in June 1972, some 475 librarians, illustrators, authors, and publishers were outraged at the practice of the painting over the penis and signed a petition denouncing it as a form of censorship.

    Books that involve drugs, violence, sex and sexual orientation can attract fierce opposition, regardless of the intended message, literary merit, or value. Sometimes these books offer windows into other worlds and experiences, which in 1971 is exactly what bothered school board members and a few parents in a white middle-class section of Queens, New York City. The city’s Community School District 25 voted to ban Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas, in which the author shares his tough story of survival in Harlem as the dark-skinned son of Puerto Rican immigrants.

    The five members of the school board who voted to ban the book did not have children in any public schools governed by the district. At a meeting that drew some five hundred people and lasted for six hours, at which sixty-three attendees spoke, most objected to the ban. The few in support took offense at “vulgarities and descriptions of sexual acts.”

    According to a New York Times account, “Book Ban Splits a Queens School District,” the five school board members who favored the ban had been nicknamed “The Holy Five” or “The Faithful Five.” Four of the five had run on a slate sponsored by the Home Schools Association, a support group for Catholic parents home-schooling their children. That slate of like-minded school board candidates foreshadowed present-day political practice at a time when this was notable and not the norm.

    In a parallel to the present moment, some questioned the motives of the board members who voted for the ban, concerned that they were reflecting personal interests and not the district’s, which was “confirmed when the board called for aid to nonpublic schools,” the New York Times story said.

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    According to the story, board member Edna Turner, who actually had five children in the schools, opposed the ban. Turner called Down These Mean Streets “a beautiful book—full of feelings.” It was “a learning tool” because “the author was willing to expose his gut feelings so that we could better understand the problems he faced. It promotes understanding.”

    A few years later, in December 1975, the board of Community School District, composed of different and recently elected members, voted to repeal the ban. The board president said the new board considered the act of book banning “abhorrent” and “undemocratic.”

    At the time the controversy erupted in Queens, Thomas’s book, published in 1967, had been out for several years and had received positive reviews. It had also already sparked conflict elsewhere, stirring tensions between students and parents in the wealthy New York City suburb of Darien, Connecticut, and had been covered in the New York Times. Things were especially heated in the spring of 1969 after a parent, Mrs. Donald E. Hill, wrote a letter to the local paper, The Darien Review, with phrasing we might today see on social media. It began: “Darien parents wake up! Why are our seniors reading filth and smut purchased from the Darien High School?”

    It was designed to get attention—and did, spurring additional letters to the Darien Review. Thomas’s memoir was among readings in a required course for seniors, “Contemporary Social Issues.” Critics of the book appeared before the school board in February asking for it to be removed, but no action was taken. Yet tensions grew. (Sales also soared, it was constantly checked out of the library and, according to students, “almost everyone in the school has read it.”) Parents objected to the vulgar language and depictions of pot smoking and homosexuality.

    By April 1969, students had raised money and invited Thomas to Darien High School to meet with them. Said one student, “We’re defending our right to know about things our parents refuse to recognize.” In his report on the visit in the New York Times, John Darnton wrote that Thomas “walked into a morning assembly period to a standing ovation, and remained for four hours, reading his poetry, answering questions and talking to large clusters of students, many of whom cut classes to hear his views on racism, slums, prisons, politics and literature.” Later he spent hours more answering questions from parents. Students said they found Thomas “humorous” and “sarcastic.” Said one student, “He really communicated, just like his book.”

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    For his part, Thomas told Darnton, “It seemed like the adults were trying to put up a force field around their children to keep out the world. It’s like living under glass. But maybe some of these students have found a glass cutter.”

    Thomas’s book would also go on to play a role in a case on which the Supreme Court ruled in 1982. It began in September 1975, when several board members of the Island Trees Union Free School District on Long Island, New York, including its chair, Richard J. Ahrens, attended a weekend education conference in Watkins Glen, New York, organized by a far-right group, Parents of New York United, Inc. (PONY-U. Inc. for short).

    At the gathering, Island Trees Union Free School District board members mixed with representatives from the Heritage Foundation and parents opposed to school desegregation in Boston, among other attendees. The keynote speaker, Genevieve Klein, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, advocated for adoption of a voucher system for education. She complained that other regents had not taken up this cause.

    “If you are a parent who believes that reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic are basic tools necessary for developing into a contributing member of society, then you know that parental control is an immediate necessity,” she told the group. “If there is to be any hope for saving another generation from becoming functional idiots the time to act is now.”

    PONY-U. Inc. was not just a local group eager to talk about schooling. Headed by Janet Mellon, a far-right activist, the group had spent several years orchestrating opposition to sex education and human relations education in schools and to student busing across Upstate New York. In 1970 Mellon claimed in an interview with a reporter from the Buffalo News that PONY-U. had two thousand members. Yet books were top of mind leading up to Watkins Glen. A few weeks prior, on July 10, the group had hosted a talk titled “Book Censorship in Our Schools” at the Central Fire Station in Ithaca, New York.

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    The Watkins Glen conference also came on the heels of one of the most violent and divisive school textbook battles in history. For six months in 1974 and 1975, bitter conflict had roiled West Virginia’s Kanawha County after a new school board member, Alice Moore, sought the removal of textbooks that she found objectionable. She had won her seat by convincing voters that schools were “destroying our children’s patriotism, trust in God, respect for authority and confidence in their parents.”

    Moore also mobilized other conservatives, locally and nationally, attracting Mel and Norma Gabler, education activists whose crusade against textbooks included specific instructions spurring conservatives to “excise the rot from the nation’s schoolbooks,” as Adam Laats writes in The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education.

    That “rot” included teaching evolution; communicating a “liberated” sexuality; “graphic accounts of gang fights; raids by wild motorcyclists; violent demonstrations against authority; murders of family members; of rape” and “books that denigrated traditional patriotic stories” in favor of popular subjects at the time, including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Gertrude Ederle, Bobby Jones, Joan Baez, W. E. B. Du Bois, “and many others dear to liberal hearts.”

    As protests in Kanawha County grew, others joined, and violence spread. Reverend Marvin Horand, a fundamentalist minister and former truck driver, called for school boycotts, arguing that “no education at all is 100 percent better than what’s going on in the schools now. If we don’t protect our children from evil, we’ll have to go to hell for it.” The controversy ultimately resulted in two shooting deaths and multiple bombings.

    Reverend Horand was charged and ultimately found guilty in connection with the dynamiting of two elementary schools. The Heritage Foundation was also on the ground, providing legal support and helping a local group hold a “series of ‘Concerned Citizen’ hearings on discontent with the public schools.” Mellon of PONY-U. was one of their “expert” speakers.

    Books often get singled out because they make someone uncomfortable.

    At the Watkins Glen conference—with the memory of Kanawha County still fresh—board members of the Island Trees Union Free School District received a list of thirty-two books described as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” A few months later, in February 1976, the board ordered the Island Trees Union Free School superintendent to remove eleven books from the district’s junior and senior high schools, including nine from school libraries.

    The move stirred outrage, but the board held firm. In March, it defended the banning, claiming that the books contained “material which is offensive to Christians, Jews, blacks and Americans in general.” Two of the books—The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, and Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge—had won the Pulitzer Prize. At a press conference, school board member Frank Martin read aloud from Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, citing sentences in which Jesus is called a “bum” and a “nobody.” Martin said that “even if the rest of the book was the best story in the world, I still wouldn’t want it in our library with this stuff in it.”

    The other books were Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas; The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris (whom I would get to know when a new edition was published in 1986); Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver; Black Boy, by Richard Wright; Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes; Go Ask Alice, by an anonymous author; A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich, by Alice Childress; and A Reader for Writers, by Jerome Archer.

    Opposition to the ban grew. In April 1976, five hundred people jammed a local school board meeting to discuss it; it was estimated that speakers were “around 10 to 1 against the board.” The board sought to sway audience members by distributing excerpts that board members found offensive. People objected, saying that it was important to read the whole book. Among the attendees were many juniors and seniors in high school. Said one, “These books are very tame. It’s nothing you can’t hear in the sixth-grade school bus.”

    Nonetheless, the board upheld its decision. Then, several months later, in July 1976, the board again voted to continue the ban, excepting Laughing Boy and Black Boy from the list. At the July meeting, Ahrens, the board chair, said that the board “will not answer any of the questions on the merits of the books” posed by the audience. Board members had read the books and pronounced them “educationally unsound.”

    By September 1976, the matter had attracted some notice, and Piri Thomas, the author of Down These Mean Streets, wrote an essay for the New York Times arguing for “the right to write and to read.” In it, he mentioned the visit to Darien, noting students’ “ignorance” of “life outside of their hothouses,” but “their sincerity in wanting to learn.” He also wrote about the banning in Queens. He quoted a youth who had told the board, that if the book “is as dirty as you who are banning it say it is, please go down to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms here in this school and you’ll really see something dirty written on the walls.”

    In a message that resonates today, Thomas in his essay made a case for the tough truths he wrote about, explaining that the book “was not written to titillate but to bring forth a clarity about my growing up in El Barrio in the 1930’s and 1940’s.” As long as that “truth” exists, he wrote, it is important for the book to stand. “Since the horrors of poverty, racism, drugs, the brutality of our prison system, the inhumanity toward children of all colors are still running rampant, let the truth written by those who lived it be read by those who didn’t.”

    When the books were first removed, Steven Pico, at sixteen, was vice president of the junior class and a member of the school newspaper’s editorial board. The following year, as student council president and a liaison to Island Tree Union Free District Board of Education, he often attended school board meetings. In the midst of the ongoing debate, Pico attended a meeting organized by the American Library Association and decided to mount a challenge to the ban.

    At the time, however, most of his peers either did not support his position or were apathetic. Many were “preoccupied with getting into colleges” and didn’t want to get involved with a controversial issue. Teachers “were worried about tenure and their jobs.” Pico eventually connected with lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union. Four other students joined the suit, which was announced on January 4, 1977, at a press conference held at the Association of the New York City Bar Association. Vonnegut, who appeared at the press conference, exulted that bans helped book sales, but said, “As an American, I am distressed that this sort of thing can happen in my country.”

    It took years for the case to make its way to the high court. Pico went off to college, spending about half of his weekends away from campus raising awareness about the dangers of censorship. He earned his BA from Haverford College in 1981. A little over a year later, on June 25, 1982, the Supreme Court handed down its decision.

    The Court ruled that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech limited the discretion of public school officials to remove books they considered offensive from school libraries. The New York Times ran its story on the ruling on page one. Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court beat, noted that Bruce Rich, general counsel to the Freedom to Read Committee of the Association of American Publishers, “called the ruling ‘marvelous’ and said it ‘sends a very important message to school boards: Act carefully.’”


    Excerpted from School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education by Laura Pappano. Copyright © 2024. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

    Laura Pappano
    Laura Pappano
    Laura Pappano is an award-winning journalist and author who has written about K–12 and higher education for over 30 years. A former education columnist for the Boston Globe, Pappano has written about education for the New York Times, Hechinger Report, Harvard Education Letter, Washington Post, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. She is the author or co-author of 3 books, The Connection Gap: Why Americans Feel So Alone, Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports, and Inside School Turnarounds.

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