Thursday, April 11, 2013

50th Anniversary of Birmingham Public Library's Desegregation

Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the integration of the Birmingham Public Library.

Following Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s court case in 1961 in which Judge Hobart Grooms had ruled in favor of integrating public parks, theaters, auditoriums, etc., the City Commissioners vowed to close all public areas that fell under this ruling, they even threatened to close the public libraries, but they were not in the jurisdiction of this particular case.

For the next two years the mood in Birmingham shifted. By 1963 the SCLC had come to Birmingham to assist the ACMHR in organizing demonstrations. April became a pivotal month for race relations in the Alabama and eventually the nation.

On April 9 three students from Miles College (U.W. Clemon, Sandra Edwards, Catherine Jones), accompanied by Addine “Deenie” Drew, staged a sit-in at the Birmingham Public Library. On this occasion they did not request service, but sat and read quietly while white patrons stared at them. No police were called and the students left without incident. The next day, April 10, a larger contingent of Miles College students (12) staged another sit-in. This time Shelly Millender, an ex-serviceman, was appointed the spokesperson of the group. Upon arrival at the Library, Millender went to the service desk and asked to join the library. He was told that he was to go to the library for blacks in the suburbs of Smithfield and apply there. This time the police were called and came to the library, but seemed reluctant to jail the protesters.

On April 11, Fant Thornley, Director of the Library, made the decision to call a special meeting of the Library Board. Before April of 1963, the Library Board had included Eugene “Bull” Connor as ex official. But since the election, the Library Board had less to fear from the city’s powerful segregationists. Although the board did not approve of the students’ use of the library “for sit-in demonstrations or for the agitation of racial incidents,” they did eventually approve a resolution integrating Birmingham’s Public Library System and directed that “no persons be excluded from the use of the public library facilities on account of race.”

Part 1 of an interview with Judge U.W. Clemon, the first African-American federal judge in Alabama. In the interview Judge Clemon reflects on his time on the bench and his role in desegregating the Birmingham Public Library. Interviewed by James L. Baggett, January 26, 2009.

Submitted by Catherine Oseas
Archives Department
Central Library

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