Hundreds of library professionals and advocates got a head start on the ALA Annual Conference Thursday, June 23, 2023, at the Rally for the Right to Read: Uniting for Libraries & Intellectual Freedom. This event, hosted by the American Library Association (ALA) and Unite Against Book Bans, brought together a diverse group of “freedom fighters” from across the nation. Attendees included library workers, high school students, the 2023 recipients of the ALA Intellectual Freedom awards, and internationally renowned author and scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.
Kendi opened his speech by recalling the African American tradition of freedom fighters. He uplifted the room, applauding library professionals, library workers, and advocates. “There can be no greater compliment than to call a human being a freedom fighter,” he said, “and if you’re fighting book bans, if you’re fighting against censorship, then you are a freedom fighter.”
Furthermore, Kendi reminded us that “history is here in our freedom fight.” The Alabama Slave Code of 1833 stated that any person who attempted to teach enslaved people to read would be fined $250, which is equivalent to about $7,600 today. Jim Crow-era segregationists separated out Black people and Black stories, banning anti-racist books from their libraries and schools. Kendi emphasized that the ideological descendants of enslavers and segregationists are today still legislating for ignorance, via book bans.
A panel of freedom fighters from across the country shared their personal experiences from recent years. Leila Green Little, a rural mom, MLIS student, and lead plaintiff of Little vs. Llano County (Tex.), recounted the moment when her children’s favorite book, In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak was banned at her local library. “Politics is personal,” she said, “and it doesn’t get more personal than a family favorite library book.”
Throughout the rally, speakers pointed to history to inform today’s struggle for intellectual freedom. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, who was recognized at the event for her leadership and decades of work on these issues , drew attention to ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement, which was originally signed on June 25 1953. On this 70th anniversary of the statement, she called attendees to action to reaffirm their values by signing and amplifying the statement.
The evening’s rally concluded on an energizing note. ALA President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada introduced three recent graduates of Beaufort County (S.C.) high schools who are leading the fight to reinstate 97 books that were banned from their school libraries. The three students invigorated and inspired the crowd, stating that they have raised their voices at every school board meeting since the 97 books were first banned in November 2022. They will also star in a forthcoming feature documentary film, “97”, chronicling their fight against book bans.