May 20, 2014

Historical context of The Speaker, to screen at ALA, and now also on the web

ALA has announced that there will be a screening and discussion of the controversial 1977 film, The Speaker, produced by ALA to educate people about intellectual freedom. ALA has now also made the film available on the web (details at the above link). The film was perceived by many to advocate an unacceptable tolerance of racism, and the firestorm that engulfed ALA at the time was severe. I think the event in Las Vegas stands a chance of being very interesting, but would be helped by sharing a bit of the context surrounding the film’s original release. To that end, I am copying here a passage from Ken Kister’s excellent biography of Eric Moon, published by McFarland in 2002 (a book very much worth buying)…

The Speaker: Secret Project

Unfortunately for [Eric] Moon, these questions [of a National Information Policy] were not uppermost in the minds of many ALA members in Detroit, nor would they be at anytime during his presidency. Instead, beginning in June 1977 and continuing well into 1978 the attention of most members was riveted on a much more emotional – and inflammatory – concern: what to do about an ALA-sponsored film called The Speaker, which, shades of the 1960s, again brought the association face to face with the sickening smirch of racism? Moon was nonplussed. The last thing he wanted was a great commotion diverting attention from his information policy initiative, which would be difficult enough to achieve in the best of circumstances. Yet neither he nor anyone else in the association had the power to quell The Speaker controversy once it raged out of control. Like a virulent disease, animus created by the film infected and overwhelmed the association in 1977 and 1978, and national information policy, never a crowd pleaser, got lost among all the angry words and hurt feelings.

Prior to the Detroit conference, the large majority of rank-and-file ALA members knew little or nothing about The Speaker, though several items in the library press, that spring, notably a John Berry editorial, “A Whimper for Freedom,” in the June 1, 1977, issue of LJ [Library Journal], warned that the film had problems and could be trouble. In addition, some insiders, including members of the Executive Board, had viewed the film at private screenings in April and May, and there had been a festive “premiere” in California in mid-May for the cast, production crew, and invited guests. Once in Detroit, however, everyone had an opportunity to see The Speaker and learn the basic facts.

Subtitled A Film About Freedom, the 42-minute 16mm color production was completed in April 1977 and ALA, the copyright holder, began processing 150 advance orders in the middle of June, just days before the opening of the Detroit conference. The ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee sponsored the film, with Judith Krug, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, credited as executive producer. Lee R. Bobker, president of Vision Associates, the New York production company that made the film, was producer-director. Bobker also coauthored the script (originally called Days in the Death of Freedom) with Barbara Eisberg.

From the outset The Speaker project was envisioned as an exploration of the First Amendment in contemporary American society. The film’s plot, originally suggested by Archibald Cox (of noble Watergate fame), involves a fictionalized account of real-life efforts to prevent Dr. William Shockley, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, from publicly speaking about his theories on race and specifically his belief that black people are genetically inferior to whites. The fact that Shockley had been denied the right to speak at Harvard University and other college campuses in the early 1970s disturbed Cox and like-minded academics concerned about the future of free speech in America. In the film, a high school current events club invites a Shockley-like character (called Dr. Boyd) to discuss his ideas about race at a school assembly, but others at the school and in the local community are outraged and pressure the club and its adviser, history teacher Victoria Dunn (played by acclaimed actress Mildred Dunnock), to rescind the invitation. Dunn and the club refuse, but in the end the speaker, who is never actually seen or heard in the film, is banned the the school board. The Speaker drew on the school’s student body and faculty for its interracial cast.

How did a film with such a story line come to be associated with ALA, especially since the plot has nothing directly to do with libraries? How did it happen that an organization riven by excruciating racial conflict just a dozen years before came to puts its imprimatur on a project built around the premise of black inferiority? Why did the controversy caused by the film dominate ALA business for practically an entire year, during which time Moon’s information policy proposal was wiped off the association’s radar screen? How did all of this happen? Who was responsible? …

To find the answer you’ll have to read the next 20 pages in the (7″ by 10″ format) book (available on Amazon).

While we’re on the topic of books from McFarland, I have two others on my shelves that have sections devoted to The Speaker and the controversy surrounding it: A Passage for Dissent: The Best of Sipapu, 1970-1988, by Noel Peattie, published in 1989, and Zoia! Memoirs of Zoia Horn, Battler for the People’s Right to Know, published in 1995. These books were part of the inspiration for our own contribution, the Library Juice Press Handbook of Intellectual Freedom: Concepts, Cases, and Theories, published this year. If this topic is interesting to you then you might want to take a look at it.