Threat of Banned Books in Marin Schools

By Carol Acquaviva

“Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.” — President Dwight David Eisenhower speaking at Dartmouth College Commencement, June 1953.

This year, Banned Books Week is September 18–24. This annual event celebrates our freedom to read, and is a chance to bring attention to the harm of removing or restricting access to books. Historically, Marin has not been immune to the issue of book censorship.

In 1969, two best-selling books came under attack from State Schools Superintendent Max Rafferty. Both titles were frequently used in the classrooms at that time at the College of Marin and Tamalpais High School. Rafferty ruled that continued use of the books in the classroom would be grounds for revoking teacher credentials. The books in question were Soul on Ice by Black Panther member Eldridge Cleaver, and the play Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Both texts were challenged across the country because of their use of African American Vernacular English — a recognized identify marker understood today as not substandard, but rather a valid linguistic tradition that has existed for centuries. Rafferty, however, considered this and other language in the texts profane, “patently obscene,” and described it as “black ghetto.” By that standard, Rafferty said that both books violated the California Education Code, which instructed teachers to warn students “to avoid idleness, profanity and falsehood.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) blasted Rafferty’s interpretation as “a crude attempt at censorship,” and protested Rafferty’s efforts “to blow away the first amendment…with a simple wag of the tongue [and] will dash about the state snuffing out academic freedom wherever he perceives heresy.” San Francisco School Superintendent Robert Jenkins temporarily removed the books from the public school curricula. Following a lawsuit by the San Francisco Board of Education, Rafferty denied that he had threatened to revoke teachers’ credentials.

The College of Marin had been using Soul on Ice as required reading for a course on political theory and both books for an English Department course in African American literature. The College stood up to Rafferty and explained that use of the books was a matter to be decided by the school’s informed instructional committee.

Tamalpais High School Principal Henry A. Marshall, from the 1969 “PAI” yearbook

Tamalpais High School District’s curriculum director James L. Pierce understood the bigger picture with Rafferty’s accusations. “The status of the black society is a problem,” he said. “Students want to understand why the black man is angry, why he feels emasculated in our society. These books are an expression of that.”

Of Soul on Ice, Tamalpais High School then-Vice Principal Henry A. Marshall stated, “We have found good uses for it,” and agreed that teachers could use the books if “they felt they would serve a purpose.”

Anti-censorship cartoon from a scrapbook pertaining to Tamalpais Union High School District book censorship. Unknown illustrator or date. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Fifteen years earlier in 1954 the county grand jury investigated concerns that over 200 books considered “obscene, immoral and profane” were held at local public high school libraries. The grand jury review was single-handedly prompted by parent Anne Smart of Larkspur, who objected to certain “dangerous” books she found in the Tamalpais High School Library. These books were written by authors whom, Smart said, “are known for their communist and/or communist-front affiliations…. Most of the books are racial prejudice propaganda. There is not one classic among them.” Smart asked the grand jury, “Is it possible that our schools are teaching juvenile delinquency?” Citing a report from the American Medical Association that showed an increase in youth crime, Smart distributed several hundred copies of her letter to ministers, trustees, PTA presidents, community members, and elected officials.

Redwood High School English class. Photo from the 1960 “Log” yearbook.

One title Smart decried was The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat. Smart called it “a sophisticated, adult novel full of numerous described acts of fornication and blood-chilling descriptions of the goriest and most depressing aspects of war.” She continued, “After ten minutes perusal, I knew it needed to be reviewed, nor could the Librarian have been ignorant of its contents. Objections are based on depressing and defeating psychology of the entire story including its ending with its complete lack of moral or uplifting or constructive qualities.”

Smart then typed and distributed copies of seven single-spaced pages of excerpts from The Cruel Sea to illustrate her objections.

Required reading for one local Freshman English class was The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. Smart called it “a cheap little novel.” Her objections were “based upon immoral situations, which are highly abnormal to the experience of the usual twelve year old and are thus doubly suggestive to young minds and the extreme sadism and depressing, unpleasant atmosphere of the book as a whole.” This time, Smart typed and distributed four pages of excerpts, whose contents referred to cigarette smoking, “criticizing the Creator,” and “strange and conflicting desires [which are] abnormal for this age.” But, she explained, you really have to read the whole thing to understand just how awful it is.

Redwood High School Library. Image from the 1959 “Log” yearbook.

Other objectionable books Smart discovered at the school libraries, and sometimes required for class work, were:

A Field of Broken Stones by Lowell Naeve (Smart called the author “a draft dodger who spent all for the war years in Federal prison, and the book “the filthiest thing I’ve ever seen,” full of profanity and “illegal relationships.”);

Emotional Problems of Living by Oliver Spurgeon English (whose case histories describe “perversions”);

Without Magnolias by Bucklin Moon;

Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge;

Factories in the Field by Carey McWilliams;

Color Blind by Margaret Halsey;

H is for Heroin by David Hulburd (detailed descriptions of drug use);

American Argument by Pearl Buck and Eslanda Robeson, wife of famed singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson;

My Wild Irish Rouges by Vivian Hallinan;

The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Mary Ovington (“continually harps on rape”); and

National Geographic magazine due to photographs showing partially nude African women.

(at left) Anne Smart speaks to school district trustees at a meeting at the Tamalpais High School Auditorium in September 1954. (at right) Smart holds the book H is for Heroin by David Hulburd.

To Smart’s relentless call for censorship, one Tamalpais High School senior responded, “America is too great a country to be afraid of a few books.” A student at Sir Francis Drake High School remarked, “I haven’t seen anything obscene…. As for the ‘subversive’ books, there are a few that mention Russia and tell about life in Russia. I don’t see anything wrong in that. I certainly don’t think the school is propagating Communism.” Other students felt the investigation was “disgusting, ridiculous, silly and juvenile.” Tam High student Marsha, 16, said:

“I think it’s quite ridiculous to tell the truth. I think it’s a dangerous thing. I believe all of us students should read everything to form our own opinions in our own minds. When it comes to banning books — that’s when America has to worry. That’s is the dangerous thing when we no longer have the freedom we once enjoyed.”

Another Tam High student, Bruce, reasoned that if there were any obscene books, “the kids would have passed them on. I never heard any books mentioned that were particularly sexy or anything like that. If anybody wants to get filth, they can pay two bits and get something with more sex in it than anything in the library.” He continued by saying that pulling “every book they think is Communist — they’re going overboard. They are super patriots.”

“If you want to take the Bible apart, you could find obscene passages,” said another Tam High student, Pat. “If people are going to start burning books and putting them away so people won’t have a proper chance to read them, it’s dangerous…I know some pretty dirty verses in Hamlet.”

Ironically, Smart received order from Larkspur Postmaster Llewellyn D. Crandall to stop mailing quotations from the books she opposed, because the excerpts “violate a section of the U.S. Code which prohibits mailing lewd, lascivious or filthy publications or writing.”

The Marin Grand Jury released their report which concluded that the books in question should be taken off the shelves. Eventually, the trustees who upheld their school librarian and faculty were praised for their firm stand. The trustees issued a lengthy statement reacting to “indeed a surprising and disturbing situation,” and criticizing the grand jury and other outside groups for not following regularly-constituted procedure, which would involve presenting of information and an opportunity to formally discuss the value of the books and their place in the classroom. Superintendent Chester G. Carlisle said, “It is our feeling that the quotations are taken out of context and so do not represent the books in their entirety.” School District President Howard McGill said, “There is a great difference between out of text and in text — many a good book becomes obscene when parts of it are taken out of text.”

Marin County Superior Court Judge R.M. Sims, Jr. said, “In my approximately 10 years’ connection with law enforcement, I have yet to come across the juvenile or adult who entered into a course of unlawful conduct because of what he read in his school library.” Sims was also the Chairman of the Marin County Committee on Public Schools.

Tamalpais Union High School District Board of Trustees. Board President Howard McGill at far left. Image from the 1959 ”Log” yearbook.

The Marin Grand Jury released an edited version of their initial report and recommended “that the education of children in schools and at home in Americanism and the American way of life be stressed more strongly. Then we need not worry about books or anything else.”

The tumult of Smart’s objections subsided. But Smart continued to take issue with books held in school library collections. Soon after Redwood High School opened in 1958, she took the issue up again with the school district, over bestsellers such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “It’s futile to say that books are not dangerous,” she once told a TV audience. “Books have caused revolutions in past history, and they have caused revolutions in present history.”

Redwood High School classroom. Image from the 1960 “Log” yearbook.

Anne Smart did have her supporters. A gentleman from Mill Valley, citing the “free and easy access children have to rotten books in the public libraries,” wrote in a letter to the editor of the Daily Independent Journal:

“State and federal narcotic and vice agents have testified before the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Board and the National Legion of Decency that many children have become addicted to narcotics and immoral practices through having their curiosity aroused by reading books and viewing movies dealing with these subjects.

Harold W. Tobin of Fairfax, spoke on behalf of the Marin Council of Catholic Men: “There are things in [Smart’s excerpts] that I could not repeat or could not be repeated between a husband and wife.” Another staunch supporter was Grand Jury Foreman Brigadier General Newton Longfellow, who had unsuccessfully ran for School Board in 1953.

In 1956, the Novato Unified School District Board of Trustees had a heated debate with Novato High School Principal Robert McKeay over the issue of abridged classics in comic book format read in freshman English classes. Board Chairman A.R. Miller said that comic books — even the ones used in Novato as supplementary reading — “cheapen and degrade the school system” and lead down a path of giving students “an average sort of education… If these books are what’s required for the lowest 3 per cent of our students, let’s give them to the 3 per cent.” After criticism from Trustee Eugene Lang, Principal McKeay relented, saying, “We will not use such books any more unless they are cleared by the textbook committee.”

Novato High School English class. From the 1961 “Nova” yearbook.

“Our librarians serve the precious liberties of our nation: freedom of inquiry, freedom of the spoken and the written word, freedom of exchange of ideas. … The libraries of America are and must ever remain the houses of free, inquiring minds. To them, our citizens — of all ages and races, of all creeds and political persuasions — must ever be able to turn with clear confidence that there can freely seek the whole truth.” — President Eisenhower in a letter to members of the American Library Association, September 1953

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