Opinion: We shut down pools to fight diversity; now it’s libraries

Credit: Bill Wilson

Credit: Bill Wilson

Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia and a 2023 inductee in the National Academy of Education, which advances high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.

In this guest column, Smagorinsky likens proposals to shut down public libraries because of their “objectionable” content to the closing of community pools more than a half-century ago to stymie integration.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Dateline: June 15, 1971. “The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 today that communities may close their publicly owned recreational facilities rather than comply with court orders to desegregate them. ... Because the city {of Jackson, Miss.,} closed all pools to whites and blacks alike, its action did not deny Negroes the equal protection of the laws, the Court held.”

Beginning in the 1950s, communities faced with desegregation imperatives solved the problem of pool integration by closing down public pools altogether. Nobody was discriminated against, according to the nation’s most prominent and respected legal minds, because closing the pools affected people of all races equally. Rather than having Black and white people swim in the same water, public officials were allowed to make it so that nobody could swim at all.

Some went so far as to fill the pools with dirt and obliterate them from view entirely. So, in the sweltering summer heat of Mississippi and neighboring states, no one could seek refuge in the cool waters of a public swimming pool. Suffering was separate, but equal. But like the private school “academies” that responded to integration orders by admitting only white students, private swimming clubs with high fees and restrictive membership rules were soon established for those with means.

Dateline April 13, 2023: Leaders in a rural Texas county held a special meeting Thursday but drew back from the drastic option of shutting their public library system rather than heeding a federal judge’s order to return books to the shelves on themes ranging from teen sexuality and gender to bigotry and race.

The purge removed from the library such books as Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which details the effects of racism and has won many awards.

The reasoning: If a book is on the shelf that provides historical documentation for the presence of racism in American life, then nobody can read anything. And if calling such books “pornographic filth” gets the job done, then a single parent’s accusation is sufficient for cancellation.

The similarities don’t end there. The effort to integrate pools resulted in violent resistance: At the nation’s largest pool complex in St. Louis, “When a new city administration changed the parks policy in 1949 to allow Black swimmers, the first integrated swim ended in bloodshed. On June 21, two hundred white residents surrounded the pool with ‘bats, clubs, bricks and knives’ to menace the first thirty or so Black swimmers. Over the course of the day, a white mob that grew to five thousand attacked every Black person in sight around the Fairground Park.”

But as they say in Florida these days, Americans aren’t racist, and America isn’t a racist nation.

Nor are they censorious, according to the censors. Nonetheless, librarians have become fearful after bomb threats and other violent intentions have made them terrified that simply going to work and helping people find books to read quietly might be their final act on this earth. School librarians are now subject to potential criminal charges for providing books that some people don’t like. Such forms of intimidation have yet to produce mobs with baseball bats. Yet.

Both pool and library closures follow the same principle: If I don’t get my way, I’m taking your ball and going home.

What I haven’t seen yet is the same treatment afforded to books across the library’s holdings. The Holy Bible, for instance, is filled with murder, incest, adultery, fornication, theft, betrayal and Lord knows what else. Yet banning it is considered to be censorship by many. Perhaps the world’s most famous author, William Shakespeare, fills his plays with such images as “the beast with two backs” and countless other sexual references. Yet Shakespeare remains a curriculum staple in most U.S. schools and across the college curriculum.

The only protests I can find about Shakespeare, however, have followed from politicized versions of his plays, and then on a small scale. Sex and violence are fine. But relating Shakespeare’s themes to current events? No way.

And that’s where we now stand. I don’t like it, so you can’t read or watch it; and if you don’t get rid of it, we’re barricading the doors and keeping everyone out. My turf is threatened, so get off and stay off. I don’t like you, so I’m shutting down the community pool so nobody can swim.

I once taught a team of preservice teachers who designed a unit of study that centered on reading censored books. They wrote the following as part of their rationale for teaching it:

We feel that our students, at the high school level, should be able to understand the ideas and opinions about why these particular pieces of literature are considered controversial and have been censored or even banned in some American high schools. However, we hope to also explore the reasons, if any, that these works should or should not be subjected to any form of censorship. We, as teachers, will not advocate one particular stance over another, but we will encourage our students to think about what they read and who (if anyone other than themselves) has the right to withhold information from them.

Imagine that: exposing students to controversial texts and letting them decide if they are worth reading or not. That would get you fired in Florida today, and maybe Georgia, too. Critical thinking is only good when you criticize what I don’t like. And if you don’t like it, I’m locking the library door and keeping everyone out.