June 11, 2020
The last few weeks have been stressful and upsetting, but also exhilarating. With the rest of the world, members of the Social Responsibilities Round Table again have been shocked, saddened, and outraged by the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Manuel Ellis, and George Floyd. We have been angered by images of police repressing demonstrations against those murders and reporters covering those demonstrations. And we have been disgusted by a president who has denounced peaceful demonstrators as terrorists and who has prepared to employ military forces against them. But we have also been inspired by the explosive reinvigoration of a powerful movement against racism, led by a new generation of Black activists.
For all these reasons, SRRT Action Council has wholeheartedly endorsed the statement condemning racism and violence issued by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association(BCALA). We have also provided significant input and endorsed the statement drafted by ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and approved by the ALA Executive Board calling upon ALA “members to support initiatives to end police violence against Black people, to combat the systemic racism that infects our society, and to speak out against all attempts to restrict First Amendment rights.”
Of course, the struggle against racism has been an essential part of SRRT’s mission and identity since its inception. Our first program at the ALA annual conference in 1969 highlighted the lack of minority representation in library schools and the failure of library education to meet the needs of the urban poor. One of the first SRRT task forces created at that conference was established “To Evaluate the Reprinting of Literature and Media on the Negro.” The following year a SRRT-sponsored preconference on institutional racism in Detroit focused on the needs of the local black community. A resolution adopted by SRRT in 1970 demanded an end to the persecution of the Black Panthers and to the complicity of libraries in the surveillance of activists. And at the following ALA midwinter meeting SRRT voted to contribute $200 to the Angela Davis Defense Fund.
SRRT’s commitment to this struggle has continued into the present. We recognize that racism is not just an incidental “glitch” in the American psyche, but a pervasive feature of U.S. society and its political institutions and policies. Consequently, the struggle against racism remains a central focus of our programs, resolutions, and activities. In recent years SRRT has initiated resolutions denouncing systemic racism (adopted by ALA Council), honoring African Americans who fought library segregation (adopted by ALA Council), opposing voter suppression (adopted by ALA Council), condemning the use of racist training materials by the U.S. military (not presented to ALA Council), and demanding the reunification of detained migrant children with their parents (adopted by ALA Council). We have also introduced resolutions addressing gun violence (adopted by ALA Council), sweatshop labor (adopted by ALA Council), the healthcare crisis (defeated in ALA Council), and climate change (defeated in ALA Council), that disproportionately affect people of color. And SRRT has responded sharply to incidents of racist aggression at ALA conferences and has recommended measures that ALA and information workers can take to build a mass movement to confront and defeat hate speech.
The struggle against racism and issues that disproportionately harm people of color have also been central to the activities of our task forces. The Coretta Scott King Book Award for the best African American children’s book was informally established in 1969. But it did not become an official ALA award until 1982 when it was accepted by ALA Council as a SRRT award, due to the efforts of SRRT’s Coretta Scott King Task Force. Since 1999 our Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Task Force has organized —together with ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services (ODLOS) and BCALA—an annual holiday program honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. And it has worked to familiarize people of all ages with Dr. King’s legacy of peace, nonviolence, and service to humanity. Our Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force has initiated and organized a wide range of activities that have addressed poverty, which is highly racialized in the U.S. These have included a resolution on homelessness in libraries (referred by ALA Council to its Intellectual Freedom Committee), major conference programs, and the distribution of relevant information. Keenly aware of the double oppression of women of color, our Feminist Task Force has: sponsored programs on racism and ethnic diversity in librarianship and a feminist perspective on racism; introduced a resolution committing ALA to combatting racism as well as sexism in the library profession (approved by ALA Council); and monitored ALA exhibits and library publications for racist as well as sexist and homophobic content. The International Responsibilities Round Table has opposed racism internationally in its programs and its resolutions, including by: calling for an end to wars waged by America against people of color in Iraq (approved by ALA Council), in Afghanistan (defeated in ALA Council), and again in Iraq and Afghanistan (defeated in ALA Council); and an end to the U.S. use of torture in those wars (approved by ALA Council). It has also condemned the destruction of libraries in Gaza as part of the racist occupation of Palestine (defeated in ALA Council), and opposed restrictions on the free speech of the anti-racist movement against that occupation (not considered in Council due to opposition from ALA’s Committee on Legislation and Intellectual Freedom Committee; earlier version defeated in ALA Council).
Unfortunately, many of SRRT’s initiatives have been dismissed within ALA as not related to libraries, as a distraction from its legislative agenda, or as out of step with its current priorities. But we are encouraged by the proclamation on ALA’s new banner: “We stand against racism. Anywhere. Everywhere.” That is a sentiment we in SRRT enthusiastically share, and a pledge we will continue to honor.
2 For discussions of SRRT history in opposing racism, see Alfred Kagan, Progressive Library Organizations: A Worldwide History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2015), pp. 153-240; and Elaine Harger, Which Side Are You On?: Seven Social Responsibilities Debates in American Librarianship (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016) 1990-2015, pp. 15-109.