Diversity and Equity Through Unity: A Brief History of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association

Two factors are significant to note in an examination of the genesis of the Caucus. First, reflecting upon the climate of the sixties and seventies, one should not have been surprised to see such a group as the Black Caucus begin. The political assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X along with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were at the time all histories yet to be contemplated in textbooks and explored in social analyses. The device of television changed history into reality and on a daily basis, the American citizenship became more acutely aware of the critical issues in this country. It was evident that response to injustices and inequality among the populations did not always assume a passive posture.

In many instances, protest emerged in the formation of caucuses convened and organized to keep parent organizations abreast of the unique needs of their African American constituencies. John A. Axum regarded this phenomenon as a means "to mobilize the power necessary to ensure that the fullest and most relevant library service is made available to black people."1 He urged that all in the field including librarians, trustees and others need to make even more wide-spread use of this approach as a means of furthering black liberation.(2)

Several professional organizations are enhanced by the presence of caucuses including political scientists, social workers, attorneys, dentists and physicians, and teachers. Politically, the influential and ubiquitous Congressional Black Caucus in the United States House of Representatives since its inception in 1973, has helped shaped public policy and legislation.

Secondly, in addition to a milieu imbued with a new impetus of uncommon tenacity, the masses should not have been alarmed at the announcement of the ALA Black Caucus formation because ALA had been sufficiently forewarned of the frustration among African American members. In recounting the history of the Black Caucus, Lisa Biblo documented the influence that expressions of concern by librarians had within the ranks of the association.3 E.J. Josey wrote that "the seeds for establishment of the Black Caucus were sown during the 1930's and 1940's when a few blacks attending meetings of ALA met over meals to share common concerns."4

In 1936, ALA voted not to meet in cities where black members would not receive treatment equitable to that of whites. Another landmark move was ALA's effort to desegregate state chapters by mandating that there should only be one chapter in each state.5 Hearing the voices of the increasingly disenfranchised, ALA commissioned an access study in 1963. Its purpose was to examine segregation at southern public libraries and the inequities at other public libraries.6 Conclusions confirmed the existence of discriminatory practices and a lack of support for librarians who may have challenged the existent institutional racism. Although impressive on record, these initiatives were not supported by a declarative statement by ALA that segregation was not permissible under any circumstances. According to Biblo, "the lack of speed and enthusiasm for the cause of integration of the southern state chapters and libraries led black librarians to wonder about the commitment the ALA had to its members."7

Sadly, during the sixties, in the minds of many ALA members, those gains of the past by African American librarians were progressive enough. Fortunately, for African American librarians, there were leaders amongst us who were the "reactionaries" needed to facilitate the much needed change.

Impatience gave rise to acumen of empowerment and in 1970 during the mid-Winter meeting, E.J. Josey invited a group of African American librarians to meet as other groups had met in the 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's. The agenda was focused and unequivocal: To assess the Association's responsiveness to the needs of its African American membership. The deliberation was provocative and inspiring; and the resolution was swift and astounding. As Josey observed at the time, "We tried to work within the general framework of ALA" and it was "decided that ALA would not adequately respond to the needs of black professionals and that the Black Caucus would give professional black librarians a chance to take control of their professional destinies."8

The ensuing "Statement of Concern" was entered into the Record of the Association American Libraries reported the historic event: "Virginia Lacy Jones, at large, asked to have the new business entered from a group calling themselves the Black Librarians Caucus. There was no objection from Council and she yielded the floor to Effie Lee Morris for a background statement."9 The statement was later followed by a seven part "Program of Action" developed by the Caucus Planning and Action Committee chaired by Thomas Alford. This action plan was endorsed in 1971 and became the guiding principles for the embryonic but proud and determined Black Caucus of the American Library Association.