Likely Stories: Freedom Libraries by Mike Selby

Jun 11, 2020

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I recently received a book which opened the window on a frightening and horrific story.  Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South by Mike Selby.  Mike “is a professional librarian.  He received his MLS from the University of Alabama, which is where he first unearthed the story of the Freedom Libraries.  He has published over nine hundred articles about libraries, reading, and print culture—much of it covering libraries during the Civil Rights Movement” (Jacket).  The book recounts a number of anecdotes and the people who suffered and risked their lives to bring books to children.


Selby writes, ‘Freedom Libraries were originally a project of ‘Freedom Summer—the voting registration campaign launched by various civil rights organization in Mississippi during the summer of 1964.  They were not contained to the Magnolia State, though, and Freedom Libraries appeared throughout the Deep South, and even as far north as Philadelphia.  While the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—[known as SNCC] would play a part in establishing a large number of these libraries, some were created by people not affiliated with any official organization.  Local citizens including mothers and grandmothers simply saw a need and filled it, no longer expecting the society they lived in to do so. // Information about these libraries has been extremely limited, so much so that their very existence remains ‘virtually unknown even within the American Library community” (xii).  Literature about these libraries is barely mentioned even in examples of Civil Rights literature and not at all in American Libraries.

One pioneer of developing these libraries was Gwendolyn Robinson.  Selby writes, “Getting books into Mississippi was one thing.  For Robinson, getting herself to Mississippi was quite another.  A scholarship student from Atlanta’s Spelman College, she was departing for the Freedom Summer Project from the campus when her parents suddenly appeared.  Having learned of her plans, they forced her to return to Memphis, locking her in her bedroom and intercepted all of her mail and phone calls” (27).

The myriad stories contained in this book are amazing from the story of the 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who was fortunate enough to have a library card of his own.  Unfortunately, the librarian refused to allow the young man to borrow two books on Mahatma Gandhi.  An astounding event that surely influenced his life in many ways. 

My love of books began at a very early age.  I have vivid memories of visiting the Public Library in Philadelphia when I was somewhere around six years old.  Not having that privilege never crossed my mind until I read this book.  This is something I have taken for granted my whole life.  Mike Selby’s Freedom Libraries: The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South is an incredible story.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!