Resurrecting The Speaker

July 1, 2014

In 1977, the American Library Association decided to get into the movie business. Produced by the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), The Speaker follows the aftermath of a high school group’s decision to invite a controversial scientist (loosely based on William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and an outspoken eugenicist) to speak on campus. The scientist believes that blacks are genetically inferior to whites. News of the speaker’s engagement sends the school and community into an uproar, but the group holds firm to the scientist’s right to speak at the school, regardless of how they personally feel about his views.

The Speaker rocked the Association upon completion, with members accusing the film and ALA of racism. Schisms were created that persist into the present day. “Speaking about The Speaker,” a panel discussion held Monday at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, confronted the controversy head-on.

Moderated by Julius Jefferson Jr., information research specialist at the Library of Congress and president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, the panel consisted of Mark McCallon, associate dean for library services at Abilene Christian University; Beverly Lynch, professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA; and Robert Wedgeworth, ALA executive director from 1972 to 1985. Each explored the film, its reception, the controversy, and the lingering impact. The Speaker was also screened twice as a part of the Now Showing @ ALA film series to allow members an opportunity to see the film in advance of the discussion.

Drawing from resources gathered from the ALA Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, McCallon presented a historical overview of the film, from its inception by the IFC and approval by the ALA Executive Board in 1976 to its tumultuous reception at the 1977 ALA Annual Conference in Detroit. The details were fascinating and reveal an Association struggling to defend and explain a film both admired and reviled by its membership. A rare spring 1978 segment from 60 Minutes detailing the controversy was shown, with Dan Rather interviewing Office for Intellectual Freedom Director Judith Krug (who served as producer on the film), former ALA President Clara Jones, and others, interspersed with footage from the heated membership meeting at the 1978 Midwinter Meeting in Chicago regarding the film.

Lynch uses The Speaker as a case study about the complexities of the ALA in an intellectual freedom seminar that she teaches at UCLA. She hopes her students will understand the differences of opinions found in both the film and the Association by seeing the film. Interestingly, Lynch noted that she was unable to locate a copy of the film and had to procure a copy from Krug’s personal collection. (The Speaker can now be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. The discussion guide (PDF file) that was included with the film in 1977 was readily available, however, and served as an invaluable tool in both creating and teaching the seminar, she said.

Lynch noted that the majority of her students don’t find the film to be racist, but they do find the film difficult to watch. One student blamed the library press for some of the controversy, saying that their continual coverage fanned the flames and kept the issue alive. (AL’s July/August 1977 cover story on The Speaker can be found here (PDF file).

“I’ve never spoken publicly about The Speaker,” Robert Wedgeworth stated at the beginning of his panel segment. “Even my friends were reluctant to discuss it with me. It was a dream turned nightmare.”

ALA executive director during the controversy, Wedgeworth recounted invaluable first-hand testimony to the events as they unfolded in 1977. His retelling of a private screening held for the Executive Board after the film’s completion foretells the uncertainty that would soon envelop the Association.

“When it ended, not a person moved,” Wedgeworth said. “That’s when I knew that we were in uncharted waters.”

Ultimately, Wedgeworth was sympathetic to all sides involved in the controversy. “I didn’t think there’d be such a big controversy. I regret the film caused so much anguish amongst our members,” he said. “I’m not here to defend The Speaker. I’m not here to defend Judith Krug. However, as executive director of ALA, I’m responsible for whatever will happen after. It pitted friend against friend; colleague against colleague.”

Comments from attendees

Wayne Wiegand, LIS professor at Florida State University, thought that a comment by 1976–1977 ALA President Clara Stanton Jones was characteristic for the times. She had said, “What has ALA done for African Americans?” He noted that it’s possible that Judith Krug did not have the long struggle to desegregate libraries in the South from 1954 to 1968 on her mind at the time.

Trustee Leontine Synor said that “we still need to have a discussion about this movie. Our different backgrounds influence how we perceive things. I have a right to express my views openly, whether we agree or not.”

Former ALA Treasurer Herb Biblo remarked that there have been only three issues in ALA’s recent history that caused so much controversy as The Speaker: the Vietnam War, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the issue of South African apartheid.

Former ALA Councilor Mary Biblo said she had just joined ALA in 1977 when the controversy erupted. “This is what got me started,” she said, “and I haven’t stopped since.” She agreed with Wiegand, saying that there were fundamental differences in Clara Jones’s and Judith Krug’s backgrounds. “Some of the things we as black people face, you will never face as white people.”

Another African-American librarian summed it up for many in the audience: “The big question was why ALA at this moment in history, when blacks had just become an equal part of the organization by joining committees, would turn around and publicly humiliate them?” She added, “The film in essence did make the statement for Shockley: Blacks are inferior to whites.”

Robert Hubsher, executive director at Ramapo Catskill Library System in Middletown, New York, remarked, “As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I would love to deny Holocaust deniers the opportunity to speak.” However, he added, “by closing that avenue off, we open the door to the possibility of denying access to our own thoughts and ideas.”


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