Book Grant Program Helps Mississippi Libraries Combat Racism

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Sixty years ago, a group of Black students was arrested and jailed for peacefully studying at the white-only Jackson Municipal Public Library.

Today, shelves in public libraries in the Jackson-Hinds Library System display books called “We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide," “How To Be Anti-Racist" and other titles about combating racism and white supremacy.

The “Anti-Racism Reading Shelf” grant program was started by the Mississippi Humanities Council in the wake of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis and national conversations about systematic racism, Mississippi Humanities Council Executive Director Stuart Rockoff said.

“We created this program because we believe books and ideas can change lives," Rockoff said. "We know there is a tremendous need for books and programs about how we can understand and overcome our history of racism.”

More than 150 libraries in Mississippi received a total of 1,900 books spread out across the state. The Mississippi Humanities Council gave each library system between $750 and $1,500 and compiled a suggested reading list of over 120 titles they could choose from that included adult fiction, nonfiction, young adult and children's books.

Several contemporary Mississippi authors were included on the list. Libraries could get copies of Angie Thomas's young adult novel “The Hate U Give,” the story of a Black teenager who witnesses a police officer shooting her childhood friend and “Men We Reaped,” the memoir of two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. In the book, Ward chronicles the deaths of a brother and four other young Black men in her hometown of DeLisle over the course of four years.

A popular children's book on the list was “Hair Love,” a book based on an animated short film about the relationship between a father and daughter and celebrating Black hair.

Kimberly Corbett, deputy director of the Jackson-Hinds Library System, said it was important to have the books as people were looking for ways to educate themselves and engage in sometimes difficult conversations.

"I think the role of the public library in today’s society is to provide access — and that means anyone can find out about anything. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or who you are," she said. "Our books are always on the frontlines. Books open up worlds. I mean, it gives people the chance to see other perspectives and experiences and walk in someone else’s shoes for a while."

The public library in Jackson has always been the site of social change.

The sit-in by nine Tougaloo College students at Jackson’s white-only library on March, 27, 1961 is widely considered the first student protest of segregation at a public institution in Mississippi. During their peaceful protest, the students were arrested and spent the night in jail. Jackson college students and community members who picketed the Tougaloo Nine’s arrest and were met by police with clubs and dogs.

The NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit against the library, and a federal judge ordered the Jackson Public Library to desegregate.

Jeff Tomlinson, director of the Lee-Itawamba Library System, said the reason libraries can be vehicles for social change is that they are free and open to all.

“It’s almost like the unspoken mission statement of public libraries that these are bookshelves full of ideas, not bookshelves full of books," said Tomlinson, whose library system received a $1,000 grant through the program. "That’s exactly what we’re trying to provide to the community: ideas.

“We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t continuously expose ourselves to new perspectives, new ideas, a variety of opinions,” he continued.

Funding for the Anti-Racism Reading Shelf program was provided by The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Thomas M. Blake Charitable Fund #2 of the Community Foundation for Mississippi and private donations from Mississippi residents.

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Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.