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Knocked Over By a Feather: McCarthy and Book Burning

- by Laura Malone Elliott

September 24, 2017

McCarthy and Book Banning


Knocked Over by a Feather


McCarthyism didn’t just focus on the State Department or federal workers. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ranted: “Communists in America are everywhere—in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners—and each carries with him the germs of death for society.” Their list grew to include educators and librarians.

Hoover and McCarthy were obsessed with rooting out and removing radicals and progressives from any institute of learning, “as long as school boards and parents tolerate conditions,” said Hoover, “whereby communists and fellow travelers, under the guise of academic freedom, can teach our youth a way of life that eventually will destroy the sanctity of the home, that undermines faith in God, that causes them to scorn respect for constituted authority.”

And the most effective tool in contaminating and corrupting thoughts, they said? Books.

With Hoover’s help—and following fast on the persecution of the Hollywood Ten screenwriters for supposedly peppering movies with hidden communist philosophies (more on them in a later blog)—McCarthy went after libraries and what was shelved there. With a vengeance.

Take, for instance, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, McCarthy said, it encouraged men to protest American law and order. Or that John Steinbeck. Look at how his Grapes of Wrath focused on pain and tragedy, making workers look oppressed, that America was a hard, unfeeling place, that the rich caused the Depression and did little to help its victims. Nothing short of Leninist propaganda!

A storm surge of Red-hunting swept into our libraries. What followed was one of the worst waves of censorship our nation ever experienced.

In honor of those who fought it and this year’s National Banned Book Week, I’d like to share the story of some daring college students who helped snap McCarthy’s hold on the American psyche.

It all began when Robin Hood was banned.

In 1953, an Indiana State textbook commissioner called for banning all references to Robin Hood in books used in schools because he “robbed from the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist Line. It’s just a smearing of law and order.”

Across the country, librarians immediately pulled copies of Robin Hood—out of fear of retribution from local councils, trustee boards, or neighborhood watchdog groups. By that point dozens of librarians had been fired or hounded out of their jobs. The reasons? They might have refused to remove liberal magazines like the Nation or New Republic. Or they wouldn’t sign loyalty oaths and affidavits swearing they had never “been a member of, or directly or indirectly supported or followed” a long list of organizations the FBI tagged as suspect. (In California, the list included 146 groups.) Perhaps they did not cooperate with background investigations and invasive questions about their personal beliefs, what they liked to read, and their friendships.

Like all people, librarians’ political beliefs ran the gamut. Some succumbed to the Red-hunt fever or agreed with the purge. Claims that particular books were dangerous often bordered on the ridiculous. In 1952, two Midwest librarians complained to the Newberry-Caldecott Committee about the winner Finders’ Keepers—a picture book my character, budding-artist Natalia, pulls out to show Richard as an example of bold, new graphic illustrations. Natalia opens the book to a page with a drawing of a big black dog trying to take a bone away from two little red dogs, and says, “… some crazy librarians are claiming the book is subversive. I mean, really! The dogs are just figuring out how to share a bone between them. But these women claim that the white spots on the black dog resemble the outlines of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Taiwan, and Japan. That the picture is suggesting imperialism, that we and our capitalist allies are trying to bully Communist-leaning countries.” She makes a face and adds, “I think those librarians must have been smoking some tea.” (I love Natalia!)

No library was safe from such scrutiny and attacks. The Boston Post attacked the venerable Boston Public Library for displaying Lenin’s Communist Manifesto, the editorial wondering why the library didn’t have a copy of Senator McCarthy’s new book: McCarthyism: The Fight for America. The insinuation being the librarians were facilitating, even encouraging communist thought. (The library countered the senator’s recently published book was on order.) The Post demanded Boston follow the lead of countless other libraries across the nation and “label its poison”— all books by any author thought to have any communist associations should bear a stamp. Works about socialist governing should be quarantined in reference rooms so their messages could not be carried out into the community. That also required the reader to sign for it, leaving his/her name emblazoned on a list of people interested in Soviet philosophies.

Remarkably, the famed FBI double agent Herbert Philbrick—who exposed a communist cell and whose memoir I Led 3 Lives spawned a TV series—said the library should actually stock more pro-Soviet materials to provide the public a way to study communist dogma “to better know the enemy.”

In protest of this increasing pressure to censor, the American Library Association (ALA) braved passing a Freedom to Read statement in 1952.

But that didn’t stop McCarthy’s right-hand man, Roy Cohn, from traveling to our State Department overseas libraries and pulling as many as 46 authors and hundreds of books from their shelves. The justification: embassy libraries were supposed to provide a “full and fair” impression of the United States. Books that seemed to criticize or question the American way of life undercut that purpose, fueling Soviet propaganda against Western democracies. McCarthy’s men even burned some books.

Their targets included works by Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Thomas Paine (whose Common Sense had been a call to arms during our own Revolution), poet Langston Hughes, journalist/novelist Upton Sinclair, playwright Lillian Hellman, and detective writer Dashiell Hammett, among many others.

Against this pervasive inquisition and hysteria rose up five Indiana University students. Banning Robin Hood was their tipping point.

The co-eds had been looking for a symbol to use in protesting McCarthyism’s siege on freedom of speech. They found it in the legendary feather-capped green hats worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The IU coeds went to local farms, gathered bags and bags of feathers, and dyed them green in a dorm room bathtub.

In early March 1954—when McCarthy was in his height of power, arrogant and confident enough to accuse the Army and a decorated WWII general of coddling communists—these daring students proclaimed themselves “The Green Feather Movement” and spread their Robin Hood-defiant feathers across campus.

They were immediately attacked as being “communist dupes” and radical “longhairs.” Newspapers denounced them. Some student groups jeered them. Hoover’s FBI began watching them.

But even with such intimidation tactics, the Merry Men protests spread. First to some other Big Ten universities, then to Harvard, then to UCLA (where my fictional character, Natalia, joins its ranks). Their feathers helped knock over that terrifying king-of-the-hill bully, Joseph McCarthy, and his minions.

Their legacy continued into the next decade. Many historians credit these five feather-wielding students with initiating campus-activism that would prove so important to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

They certainly inspired me to make my two teenage boy protagonists book-lovers. Richard and Vlad often find their answers, their courage, in what they read. Isn’t that what books are all about?

Those IU coeds proved, once again, that it is often the idealism and fearlessness of youth that wakes a nation’s conscious. I hope today’s students are planning their own feather-like symbols.

EDUCATORS/ LIBRARIANS: Please see a Banned Book Week classroom unit to help students find symbols to fight book censorship, p. 7-8: )

To learn more about the Green Feather Movement: and (You can even order green feather pins!)

To watch a wonderfully authentic dramatization of the way librarians were threatened, see this clip from Storm Center, (1956), starring Bette Davis.

For Richard’s “reading list” and the 1950s books featured in SUSPECT RED: /book_landing_page_historical/suspect-red/richards-reading-list-suspect-red.


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