In response to some questions about the upcoming “Speaking About The Speaker“ at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference, the Library History Round Table Executive Committee has made this statement about their decision to co-sponsor the program:
LHRT Executive Committee Statement re. OIF The Speaker Conference Program
The Library History Round Table (LHRT)’s decision to co-sponsor the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF)’s conference program on The Speaker has met with consternation from some members of ALA Council and the Social Responsibility Round Table (SRRT). Since no one from Council or SRRT has contacted LHRT officers to discuss their concerns, the LHRT Executive Committee has authorized OIF to publish this statement on its blog, which all concerned parties may access.
Today, ALA positions itself as a champion of civil liberties and diversity. For example, in the past decade Council has passed resolutions in support of immigrant rights (Midwinter 2007), same-sex marriage (Annual 2009), and universal health care (Annual 2009). Yet the association and some of its leaders were not always at the forefront of human rights advocacy. Decades of tortuous debate were sometimes required in order for ALA to evolve toward the ideals that seem so natural to us now. Nowhere is this truer than in the cases of intellectual freedom and race relations.
The Speaker and the controversy it caused are nearly forty years old. Yet we face some of the same issues today. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are nearly one thousand hate groups operating in the United States. They request meeting rooms in libraries and other public spaces, including a Ku Klux Klan rally planned last year at Gettysburg National Military Park. The intended purpose of The Speaker was to invite librarians to examine the limits of their own commitment to intellectual freedom. Such an exercise remains worthwhile.
More importantly, LHRT is concerned that the rising generation of librarians has little inkling of the struggle of African Americans and other persons of color to be welcomed, heard, and respected with our profession. For example, many are unaware of Melvil Dewey’s anti-Semitism; ALA’s acquiescence to “local custom” when holding conferences in segregated cities; and yes, the fierce debate between the Intellectual Freedom Committee and the Black Caucus regarding the production and screening of The Speaker. In criticizing the program, one Council member stated that there is no point to showing a film which “so few of the current members of ALA were even involved with.” LHRT’s position is just the opposite—that we must expose and educate members about these matters precisely because many of today’s librarians have no knowledge of them. LHRT respects colleagues who remember The Speaker as an ugly chapter in ALA’s past. Yet they are not the only constituency to be considered. LHRT passionately believes that each generation has the right—and the obligation—to learn about such events and make sense of them on their own. Those who were children or even unborn in 1977 deserve the opportunity to see and learn about The Speaker, and use it to strengthen their professional philosophy and practice.
In co-sponsoring a panel discussion about The Speaker, LHRT does not seek to garner attendees through “sensationalism,” “stir up unnecessary controversy,” or “reopen old wounds” as has been charged. Our membership includes retirees and several former presidents of ALA who may have painful memories of those days. We care fervently about inclusiveness. During the planning stage, we requested that OIF invite former LHRT chair Mark McCallon, who has undertaken rigorous scholarly research on the topic, to join the panel in hopes that he would introduce the audience to the disputes surrounding the film. The involvement of the Black Caucus heartens us as well. We are confident that the OIF has assembled a panel that will raise awareness of at least some of The Speaker’s complexities. We hope that attendees will bring questions to the event and share their personal reflections. We shall continue to support ALA’s efforts to offer programs that critically examine the profession’s history.
This past week, a historic court decision in Pennsylvania reminded us that simply because an activity “causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional.” In a similar vein, LHRT believes that The Speaker and other artifacts of ALA’s history, however agonizing, deserve to be known and discussed.
Bernadette A. Lear
LHRT Chair, 2013-2014
Endorsed unanimously by the Library History Round Table Executive Committee:
Dominique Daniel, Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect
Ellen Pozzi, Secretary-Treasurer
Julia Skinner, Member-at-Large
Cindy Welch, Member-at-Large
Mark McCallon, Past-Chair
Eric Novotny, Incoming Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect
Nancy Dupree, Incoming Secretary-Treasurer-Elect
Suzanne Stauffer, Incoming Member-at-Large
 Hon. John E. Jones, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Whitewood v. Wolf, Memorandum Opinion, May 20, 2014, pg. 38. See http://www.aclupa.org/files/8714/0061/1059/WHITEWOOD_OPINION.pdf.