From Southern Changes, Vol. 12, No. 5, 1990
As contemporary debates concerning the National Endowment for the Arts remind us that censorship, like patriotism (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson), too often becomes the last refuge of scoundrels, the words Lillian Smith prepared for the 1944 annual meeting of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union again raise timely end probing questions. What fears are aroused in those who would censor art? What in our culture continues to produce a Jesse Helms?
In the spring of 1944 Lillian Smith found her own work the subject of a censorship debate. Her novel Strange Fruit had been declared a "big best-seller" even before publication date, Feb. 29. Within a month, March 20, it was labeled obscene and banned by the Boston police. Two weeks later, with the advice of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union and the cooperation of the novel's publishers, Reynal and Hitchcock, Harper's Magazine columnist Bernard de Voto initiated a test case of the ban by purchasing a copy of the book from Abraham Isenstadt, owner of University Law Book Exchange in Cambridge. Joseph Welch, later made famous in U.S. Army v. McCarthy, defended Strange Fruit, but on April 26 District Court Judge Arthur P. Stone found the novel "obscene, tending to corrupt the morals of youth." A subsequent appeal did not overturn his decision, and the novel remains, technically at least, banned in Boston.
Efforts to ban the book in Detroit were successfully defeated by combined efforts of the United Auto Workers and the Detroit Public Library. The other successful banning of Strange Fruit occurred in mid-May when the U.S. Post Office ordered newspapers and magazines not to advertise the novel. The ban lasted only three days, however, because publisher Curtice Hitchcock sought and obtained the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Because Lillian Smith sent a copy of the following statement with a note to Curtice Hitchcock, it was preserved with her correspondence in the files of her subsequent publishers, Harcourt, Brace, & Jovonavich. It is reproduced here with the permission of the Lillian Smith estate.
From: Lillian Smith
(May 26, 1944)Statement to Civil Liberties Union of Mass.
For Annual MeetingThere are many people who can not bear to face a truth that hurts. There are some who have closed doors so firmly on their own emotional past that they go into a panic of fear when a book revives old memories. There are others who, because of early childhood training, have learned to look upon all frankness--however serious, however necessary to mature understanding of human experience--as something unclean and contaminating.These are our immature, emotionally undeveloped people; frozen on a level of infantile experience, completely cut off from the possibility of growth and change.Our culture, our values, our family experiences, the Puritanic strains in our religion--all tend to produce such people in numbers larger than we care to admit.These people fear a book like Strange Fruit with a profound dread; and will seize on any pretext, however silly, to keep others and themselves, from having access to it.But there are many others who fear the effect of Strange Fruit on the racial status quo; and, I think, within this group we shall find Boston's major reason for banning the book. These people believe it is to their political and economic advantage to keep the Negro and the Jew and labor where they are today. They fear all change. They know when racial segregation begins to weaken, that other forms of segregation and exploitation will crumble with it. They fear the book because it has the effect of stirring imagination and reawakening guilt feelings.To these people, segregation in all its forms: racial, economic, religious, psychological, must be maintained at however great a cost to civil liberties and intellectual freedom.It is only by realizing that the charge of obscenity is a clumsy attempt to destroy the book's power and prestige, that we, who believe in civil rights, can defend these rights in terms of this book. One can argue until doomsday about good taste without arriving at a just and true decision. Good taste is innate kindness and sensitiveness, tactfully genuflecting to contemporary taboos--a subtle and delicate blend of social good-will and hypocrisy that is too delightfully elusive to be caught and thumb-printed. For instance, what was good taste in men's bathing suits twenty years ago would not be worn today, for a fortune, by one of the Watch and Ward gentlemen. Although by their own inexorable logic they should be compelled to wear such a garment while they go about plucking strange fruit! Yet, however elusive it is, good taste plays a necessary role in the rituals of everyday life and social affairs and always will.But a book is not a social situation. A book is a serious examination of life. Truth cannot be adjusted to this year's drawing-room manners, as can our behavior at a tea party. It is completely irrelevant, therefore, to attempt to use taste as a criterion for artistic truth--just as it would be to offer it as a valid reason for refusing to operate on a sick man. Truth, science and human need have never conformed to Watch and Ward manners or to postal regulations, and never will.To suggest anything else is so contrary to common sense and sanity that one is compelled to brush such excuses aside and look for the hidden reasons. Why is a serious book with one plain word in it being fought across the country by post-office and watch and ward socieities [sic] and police?The answer to this question will lead us to the roots of our culture--roots we must be willing to look at closely. For there is rising rapidly, now, to the surface of our American life, forces of hate and fear end ruthlessness that do not often show themselves so plainly. These evils in our culture have been here for a long time. They are old seeds that are now bearing a strange and heavy crop of trouble. We, in fighting for the right of this book to be read, are not fighting a little battle over one small word but a war against a way of life that threatens to destroy all that we value in human goodness and freedom and intelligence.
At the time of this writing, Rose Gladney was assistant professor of American studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.