View item information

"Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission photograph of Ethel Sawyer following her arrest for her participation in a sit-in at a library in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961 March 27." Ethel Sawyer was a member of the Tougaloo Nine, tracked by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission because of her civil rights activities. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History via Digital Library of Georgia.

Although many activists challenged segregation laws through writings and individual action, it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s that segregated public libraries would be challenged through coordinated, non-violent protest action.

After careful planning, nine members of the local NAACP Youth Council (subsequently known as the Tougaloo Nine) attempted to use the white-only Jackson, Mississippi, public library on March 27, 1961. When they refused to leave, they were arrested and jailed for disturbing the peace. In 1962, similar student protests occurred at the local library as part of the Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia. In Anniston, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, two African American ministers were attacked by a white mob as they attempted to integrate the Anniston Public Library. These were just a few of the many sit-ins and protests that challenged the segregation of public libraries.

While some localities pursued integration more quickly, segregation laws would be dismantled on a national level by Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation. Three of these in particular would be important steps towards the desegregation of public libraries. In 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court would overturn "separate but equal" in a ruling about segregated schools with broader implications. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would specifically outlaw discrimination in public accommodations like public libraries. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would give African Americans full access to the vote, which granted them power over local government and its public facilities.