Commentary on The Speaker – Al Kagan, Pat Schuman, Mitch Freedman

The SRRT discussion list has been alive recently with comments – objections, to be accurate – to ALA’s decision to present a screening and discussion of the controversial 1977 film, The Speaker. Here is a sampling of some of the better ones, from Al Kagan, Pat Schuman, and Mitch Freedman, followed by a link to a good resource for further study of this, put together by the ALA Library.


On Wed, May 21, 2014 at 7:39 AM, Kagan, Al wrote:

I find it outrageous that the film is coming back to haunt us. Most of the the key players of that time have died, but there still are a few people around who could contextualize the serious outrage that this caused with passion. I am surprised that the Black Caucus would co-sponsor it. One of the presenters is Bob Wedgeworth. He played a key role in the production and hid the real intent from almost everyone of what was going on. The debacle overshadowed everything else in Eric Moon’s presidency. Here is a short excerpt from my forthcoming book:

Major Owens said that it revealed a “secret agenda of racism,” and E. J. Josey asked members “to support the humanity of black people.”[i] Sandy Berman circulated a statement that was signed by sixty-five prominent librarians. It read in part,

WE ARE ASHAMED AND DISGUSTED. The American Library Association has produced a film, The Speaker, that purports to deal with intellectual freedom and the First Amendment. It does not. Instead, it distorts and confounds the First Amendment. But even worse than this intellectual dishonesty is the film’s wanton assault upon Black people. In effect, it says: “Blacks are irrational. Blacks are unprincipled. Blacks must be ‘protected’ by Whites. And Blacks may indeed be less than fully human.”[ii]

Bill Eshelman, editor of Wilson Library Journal, put it this way:

…The decision to make the ‘liberals’ the villains who wish to prohibit the free speech of the “reactionary” is very strange and flies in the face of the facts of American, if not ALA history…It makes one question whether the IFC knows who the real enemies of the First Amendment are.”[iii]

[i] Kister, 343.

[ii] Sanford Berman, “E.J. and Me: Twenty Years of Correspondence and Agitation,” in E.J. Josey: An Activist Librarian, ed. Ismail Abdullahi (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1992), 72.

[iii] Eshelman, 254. See also Donnarae MacCann, ed., Social Responsibility in Librarianship: Essays on Equality (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989), 7-8.


Pat Schuman wrote:

Actually there are at least three Past-Presidents — Mitch Freedman, Betty Turock, and myself who are very much alive and very much around and can offer context. John Berry, who is also very much present at ALA, reported extensively on the issue.

It is disturbing that even the current press release announcing the film’s showings and the program already indicates a bias by saying:

“Many ALA members objected to the film’s subject matter and the process by which the film was produced. ”

WRONG. What many of us who voted against ALA distributing the Speaker objected to was the poor manner in which the “the subject matter” was treated –for example, the racist stereotyping of the characters, and the false dichotomy of the film ( if you are upset by racist comments you must be for censorship). No one suggested destroying the film. Personally, I opposed giving it ALA’s imprint, not because it dealt with inviting a racist speaker, but the WAY it dealt with the reactions. Many others were also appalled, including the President and the President-elect at the time (Eric Moon and Clara Jones) as well as future President and founder of the ALA Black Caucus EJ Josey. Clara, by the way, was the first African American to direct a major public library ( Detroit) and the first to become President of AL A. A vote against ALA putting its imprimatur on the the film was not a vote for suppressing or destroying it. Our votes were no more for “censorship,” than American Libraries rejecting an article, or ALA Publishing deciding to reject a book that did not meet its standards. The Speaker was poorly conceived and poorly executed. We did not want it to be the representation of our Associations view of intellectual freedom to the world. The marketplace obviously agreed — only a few hundred copues were sold.

Of course, in those days we were often bludgeoned with cries of censorship when we discussed to racism and sexism in children’s books, objected to sexist language, etc. We can only hope that the discussion does not deteriorate once more into a meaningless, but very destructive, hurtful–and false– “intellectual freedom vs. social responsibility debate.”

Deidre may be right. Ignoring this turn of events may be the best course of action. Members can judge for themselves how bad the film looks now, and how it must have looked in the context if the mid -seventies ( barely a decade after ALA itself desegrated its Chapters).



Mitch Freedman:

As Pat indicated, I too was appalled by The Speaker.

It was a warped and bad idea that never should have seen the light of day. But once ALA paid for it–which purportedly made it beyond reproach & criticism–trying to get it put away because of its overall defectiveness was targeted as “censorship”.

As ALA Honorary Member designate, Patricia Glass Schuman indicates below, discarding a book that turned out to be unworthy of addition to the library collection is what we call collection development, not censorship.

The movie was sooooo bad.

One of its joys that permanently stuck in my mind was that the African-American who had dark skin was portrayed as a “bad” guy (a censor) and the “good” guy was a very light-skinned African-American. That little piece of its reality was one of the reasons I opposed it.

Judith Krug, the head of the Intellectual Freedom Office and a bosom buddy of Nat Hentoff’s got the whole intellectual freedom community to defend her egregious error, i.e. the release of the movie. Of course Hentoff went after any opponents of the film as betrayers of ALA, intellectual freedom and the First Amendment.

I ask you, if you buy a DVD or a book that turns out to be a piece of crap when you read or preview it, what do you do? Put it in the trash because its lousy, or publicize and disseminate it so you can’t be called a censor.

A great example from real life:

A really sweet guy and director of a rural Minnesota library system ordered a few copies of the Illustrated Report of the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. When the books came in, he realized that they were published by the like of PlugLust, a San Diego porn house, and that the report was an excuse for publishing all of the pornographic photos. The funny part of the story is that he put the books in a drawer in his desk. He woke up in the middle of the night terrified that he might die before the morning and people would find the books in his desk and would think he was a librarian who not so secretly kept a stash of porn in his desk.

The next day when he discarded them permanently because they were a wholly unintended horrible mistake, the same advocates for The Speaker would accuse him of censorship–at least if they were consistent.

If instead it was okay to dump it because it was a terrible mistake, then rather than being censorship it was reconsideration of what was a mistake.

Well, folks, all opposition to The Speaker was tarred with the censorship brush.

And all of its defenders were front line freedom fighters defending the First Amendment who fought the repressive librarian censors.

I see no difference between the two cases: the porn books honestly ordered and honestly thrown out because it turned out their selection and purchase were a terrible mistake; and the case of The Speaker which was created with–I trust–good intentions, but which turned out to be a divisive, degrading and dishonest movie.

Sadly because it had IFC’s imprimatur it became the cause of the intellectual freedom establishment.

I’ll fight censors, but when something is crap, it’s my job to not compound the mistake by keeping the item in the library for fear of being called a censor.

E.J. Josey the foremost African-American of librarianship for all time, fought The Speaker with his heart and soul.

That the Black Caucus is bringing it back must have E.J.’s spirit weeping the bitterest of tears.

mitch freedman, ALA President, 2002-2003?


For further reference:

Pathfinder of resources on The Speaker compiled by the ALA Library: