The Vital Role of Libraries in Promoting Civil Equality and Informed Citizenship

hand reaching for book on library shelf main

Libraries play a crucial role in creating an informed society. As citizens, we have a birthright to knowledge and education, enabling us to reach our full potential. Libraries are essential in this endeavor, having been pivotal in the fight for racial equality. In the past, the government segregated libraries by race, prompting civil rights activists to establish freedom libraries for the Black community. Today, libraries remain a vital resource and a battleground for civil equality, continuing their legacy of promoting access and justice for all.

Education and Citizenship 

Citizenship is a birthright under our Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment provides equal citizenship to everyone born in the United States. Millions more become citizens by naturalization. They are born citizens of other nations and voluntarily become U.S. citizens.

An informed citizenry is fundamental. Citizens vote, serve on juries, and speak out when they determine something is wrong. These duties and responsibilities of citizenship require a good education. The Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education reminded us:

Free public education began in colonial times to fulfill these goals. Another means to obtain education was public libraries. People could go and take out chunks of knowledge for free. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Borrows A Book 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s parents instilled a love of knowledge into their son. His father was a minister who spoke out about the injustices suffered by African Americans in the Jim Crow South. Martin learned that the color of your skin should not mean you are less of a person.

Martin was a regular at the Atlanta Auburn Avenue Library. His home was only two blocks away. He loved going there. Annie L. McPheeters, the librarian, remembered years later how a nine-year-old boy checked out books about Gandhi. Martin would take to heart Gandi’s lessons of the powers of civil disobedience as a tool against injustice.  

He would also learn the lessons of segregation. There were libraries for white people and libraries for black people. The Supreme Court once promised segregation would be “separate but equal.”  In practice, this was a lie. 

Black people received inferior schools and libraries. 

Civil Rights Movement 

Black people have fought for equal citizenship from the beginning of our nation’s history. 

After the Civil War, the Constitution abolished slavery, protected equal citizenship, and prohibited discrimination in voting. There was a gulf between the word of the law and the reality of everyday life.  Black people and their white allies continued to fight for equal rights.

The fight for civil rights sped up after World War II. People protested and committed acts of civil disobedience. Many white people in the South fought back viciously, including with the use of violence. The federal government slowly began to protect equal justice.

Library Sit-In 

A popular means of protest was the sit-in. 

Black people opposed the segregation of public places. They protested by requesting service at “white” lunch counters and other businesses. When the owners refused service because law or custom banned white and black people from being together, African Americans sat down peacefully and refused to leave. They were well-dressed and polite.

Henry Brown and four other black men visited the Audubon Regional Library in 1964. It was a “white library.” People received library cards stamped “white” or “Negro.” Brown requested a book. The book was not available. They then sat down and refused to leave. 

The sheriff arrested them for breach of peace. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned their conviction, opposing state-endorsed discrimination.

Freedom Libraries 

The people who fought for civil rights understood the importance of education. 

Thurgood Marshall and others battled school segregation. States often denied voting rights with literacy and “understanding” tests. Voting officials asked black people who tried to vote to interpret the state constitution. They asked white people simple questions. Black people had to interpret complex provisions that even a lawyer might not understand.  

Civil rights groups organized teach-ins. They established freedom schools and community centers. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam challenged African Americans to improve themselves, including obtaining an education denied to them by white Americans.

Freedom libraries were another tool to promote equal justice. People donated thousands of books to open libraries in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  African-American literature was popular. Whites and blacks came from elsewhere to help.

Racists were angry. They slashed the tires of delivery trucks. They made harassing phone calls. They shot the house of a black family who let civil rights workers involved with a freedom library stay there. They murdered civil rights workers, white and black. 

The Fight Continues 

The fight for civil rights continues. 

We no longer have legal racial segregation. Senator Raphael Warnock now (2024) represents Georgia after becoming a pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. Warnock can go to any public library he wants. His library card will only have his name, not his name and race.

Nonetheless, racial inequality and hate continue. People are angry when educators use critical race theory to show how race still matters. Hate crimes still occur. The election of President Donald Trump was aided and abetted by racism. It is still too hard to vote
Libraries continue to be fundamental to citizenship. Let us remember that when budget cuts threaten library hours and services. Let us remember that when local governments want to deny patrons to have LGBTQ-themed books. The freedom to read is a right for everyone.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.