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If I Read, I Sit

Library Sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement

Published onMay 04, 2021
If I Read, I Sit

“Schools and libraries are the twin cornerstones of a civilized society. Libraries are only good if people use them, like books only exist when someone reads them.”[1]

This cornerstone of civilized society was denied to African Americans for far too many years. The access they had was a subpar library under the “separate but equal” clause, if they lived somewhere that even offered that. In most rural places there were no libraries and if they could, people would travel to go to a library.

With the 1954 Supreme Court decision regarding the integration of the public schools, civil rights activists pushed to integrate other public spaces. One place that seemed to get the most attention at the beginning of the 1960’s was the public libraries. The activists used sit-ins to bring attention to the fact that libraries were segregated and that needed to change. This method was used by Samuel Tucker in 1939 when trying to integrate the Alexandria, Virginia public library and while he did not get the result he wanted, his actions showed that the city ordinances could fought with by using the law.[2]

Library sit-ins weren’t used again until 1960 when students staged one at the Petersburg, Virginia in February[3]. The sit-ins were mainly followed by arrests, lawsuits, and library closures. The white citizens of the cities fought against the integration by sending letters to the city and library, involving the KKK, and burning crosses in the yards of the African Americans involved.

It is interesting to note that through all these sit-ins, while law enforcement was involved, none of them were met with the hate and violence that other civil right actions were met with. The Little Nine were greeted at the steps of Central High not only with angry white students and parents yelling profanity and hateful words, but with the Arkansas National Guard. The nine students ended up being escorted by the United States Army for the school year to protect them from the violence. The lunch counter sit-ins were met with more violence. Tugaloo students were highly active in the civil right movements, they participated in lunch counter sit-ins and library sit-in. The library sit-in students while arrested were not met with angry mobs of white people. This seems to note that the white citizens didn’t fear library integration as much as they did, school, public transportation, and restaurants.

Over the next two years libraries in the major southern cities like, Memphis, Birmingham, and Mobile all became integrated. The libraries opening their doors to more people allowed for so much more. One could argue that our world is a better place because we allowed stories to impact and inspire everyone who entered a library after the sit-ins of the early 1960s. While the fight for full integration and acceptance may still be under way, these unsung heroes fought for a cornerstone of society to become available to all people.

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