By definition, to censor is to inspect and to supervise, especially with regard to conduct and morals. The usual goal of censorship is to make individuals and society pure, by standards imposed by a controlling group. In practicing censorship, an individual, a religion, a political group, or an organization attempts to impose its own morals, values, ethics, and/or code of conduct on outside individuals or groups. In Oklahoma, a censor is usually an individual or a group that discovers and then attempts to control and to limit access to written, visual, or oral materials judged to be offensive or objectionable to themselves or to other Oklahomans. In essence, censorship is an attempt to control what individuals, school children, or organizations can read, discuss, and/or say.
In Oklahoma, the first documented incident of censorship to receive more than local attention occurred in 1910 at Southwestern Normal School (now Southwestern Oklahoma State University) in Weatherford. Three replica statues of Apollo, the Discus Thrower, and Hercules were purchased for the college's art department. When Pres. John Fletcher Sharp unpacked them, he was horrified to see that they were nude. With hammer and chisel Sharp "proceeded to denature them." When a group of students and teachers who wanted to see the works of art entered the room, he quickly sent them away until he had "made [the statues] decent for company." The students quickly jumped on the opportunity to ridicule the president's artistic alterations, and the news of the event, somewhat elaborated, spread across the state. Soon some faculty members persuaded Nell A. Snider, a teacher and poet, to write a poem about the incident. Since Sharp was from Tennessee, the piece was titled "The Sculptor from Tennessee," and it soon spread across the nation.
As the incident proved to be embarrassing, the board did not renew Sharp's contract, and he was charged with mutilation of state property. The poem entered oral tradition and also spread in print. As it dealt with denaturing works of art, it suffered some censorship but still remains one of the most humorous poems born of Oklahoma's history. The final stanza reads: "Now the moral of this isn't hard to find The nastiness is all in your mind; So unless for sculpture you have a knack, Don't take things off that you can't put back."
Two years later in Sayre, Hobart Coomer edited a socialist newspaper, the Social Democrat. At that time, the Socialist Party had many followers among Oklahoma's rural population. On July 10, 1912, he printed a "Free Love Edition." In it, he wrote that "the master class has always taught, and paid their hirling [sic] teachers, preachers, authors, editors, and other able idiots to teach, that woman is merely a multiplication table for the human species." He was charged with mailing newspapers containing "nonmailable matter, that is to say, certain obscene, lewd, lascivious, and filthy matter, language, and articles. . . ." The "lewd" content of that edition remains unknown, because there were no quotations of the material in the court record, and no copy of the newspaper has been found. On January 18, 1913, two indictments were handed down. On May 19, 1913, Coomer was fined one hundred dollars for each charge and on each count sentenced to sixty days in the Oklahoma County jail, with concurrent sentences.
Following World War I the nation experienced the "Red Scare." The episode began in the fall 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded and the communists took over the government of Russia. These events and the establishment of a Communist Party in the United States caused public fear. Consequently, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer called for the arrest of political and labor agitators, and many states passed criminal syndicalism laws that were targeted at radicals. In 1919 the Oklahoma Criminal Syndicalism Act was passed. It became unlawful to circulate or display printed matter or books that taught, advocated, or affirmatively suggested criminal syndicalism or sabotage.
It was basically an unknown law until an incident in 1940 involving Robert Wood and his wife, Ina, owners of the Progressive Bookstore in Oklahoma City. Wood was secretary of the Oklahoma City committee for the Communist Party. On September 16, 1940, the Oklahoma County sheriff and deputies raided the bookstore and arrested Wood, his wife, employees, and customers. The Woods and four others, including Eli Jaffe, were charged with violating the Criminal Syndicalism Act. Woods had also been trying to organize labor unions, and therefore he and the others had also been targeted for their opinions and labor activities, as well as for violating a law. Their arrests again brought national attention to Oklahoma. More than ten thousand items were confiscated, including not only communist literature but also other printed works such as the Constitution of the United States, Carl Van Doren's biography of Benjamin Franklin, the Bible, and numerous American literature classics. At the trial a defense witness who attempted to state that most of the material was available in public libraries was not allowed to speak. After more than a year in jail, four of the accused were convicted of possessing and selling radical books and were sentenced to ten years imprisonment and a five-thousand-dollar fine. It was reported that all of the confiscated items were taken to the Oklahoma State Fair grounds and burned. One nationally respected journal noted that "the mere possession of a book almost any book if Oklahoma has her way, may become a criminal offense."
The 1950s was the beginning of an era of political and social change. Early in the decade a nationwide campaign spread across the United States as concerned citizens worked to ban the sale and distribution of comic books with crime, horror, and sexual content. Most Americans believed that comic books promoted juvenile delinquency. In Oklahoma the "comic book" law (Oklahoma Statutes, Title 21, sec. 1032), enacted in May 1955, gave any executive officer of any city or town the right to bring charges against any person or to confiscate any book that, in the official's judgment, violated Oklahoma law. Earlier, on July 25, 1950, Ruth Brown had been fired as the librarian of the Bartlesville Public Library. After thirty years of service to the community, she was dismissed for insubordination. She had asserted her belief that African Americans had a right to use the library. Those who opposed her belief used the fear of "internal communism" or "McCarthyism" to garner support against her, because the Bartlesville Public Library subscribed to such magazines as The Nation and The New Republic, which were allegedly "subversive." A suit filed against the Bartlesville Board of Commissioners eventually went to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which ruled that a city or town had the right to govern its library as it chose.
The next censorship action to bring national attention to the state occurred in 1959 when the Citizens for Decent Literature was organized in Oklahoma City. They joined forces with the Mothers United for Decency in a campaign to purge all newsstands of indecent material. Again, public attention focused on Oklahoma, because they created a very visible and active "smut mobile," a vehicle that carried club members to various shopping centers and supermarkets to demand the removal of any book or magazine that they believed might contain "smut." At the organization's meetings, "obscene pornographic" material was projected on a screen in order to give graphic examples of what needed to be purged from public display. Those who were "under age" were directed to leave the room, and only "adults" could view the material.
Some Oklahoma school boards and public library boards have continued to condemn and/or censor American literary classics by Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, J. D. Salinger, and others. Through the years and into the twenty-first century censorship movements led by individuals, organizations, and religious groups have periodically resurfaced and will probably continue to stimulate public discussion in the future.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Eli Jaffe, Oklahoma Odyssey: A Memoir (Hyde Park, N.Y.: N. p., 1993). Guy Logsdon, "Censorship in Oklahoma: A Historic Review," Oklahoma Librarian 19 (January 1969). "Oklahoma Witch Hunt," in Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography, Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, ed. Ronald D. Cohen (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999). Louise S. Robbins, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000). James Morton Smith, "Criminal Syndicalism in Oklahoma: A History of the Law and Its Application" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1946). Patsy M. Waits, "Characteristics and Impact Assessments of Censorship Attempts to Public School Library Media Centers in Oklahoma" (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1995).
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