BY JORDAN GREEN
Susan Feit, the executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, read a passage aloud from the Upton Sinclair book Boston to a group of a dozen or so seated in a semi-circle of chairs and reclining on oversized pillows in the lobby of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and then excused herself.
She remarked that the gathering – a reading of banned books to promote reflection on hate and intolerance – was fitting to the cause for which she was being called away: A member of the Sikh community was trying to reach her to organize a community response to the mass shooting at a temple three days earlier in Wisconsin.
Inspired by the exhibit Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings, which closed at the Greensboro Historical Museum on Sunday, a “read-in” was staged on Aug. 8 as a collaboration with Elsewhere and the civil rights museum. Readings took place at a four locations across downtown Greensboro, mostly from books banned by the Nazis, or in the case of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, one that was focused on the topic of censorship.
Young and older, black and white, Americanized and accented, they took turns reading from the obscure text in what turned out to be a gripping tale of an older woman of wealth and honor who forsakes privilege for the experience of industrial labor, about workers who decide to strike for better wages and conditions, about a rigid establishment of bankers and political cogs, about immigrants pushed around, framed and railroaded.
Plymouth, Mass. 1916. Sacco and Vanzetti. “This was written in 1928,” said Eric Noble, a docent at the civil rights museum. “I was the last person to check it out in, I think, 30 years.”
Their names may not mean much in Greensboro in 2012, but when the state of Massachusetts put them to death in 1927 for murder their struggle was an international cause celebre. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were targets of suspicion by the political establishment for several reasons: They were committed anarchists, Italian immigrants, labor organizers and opponents of the United States’ involvement in World War I.
“Why this book is so important is it not only talks about jurisprudence – the way that justice is administered,” Noble said. “It also talks about ethnic discrimination. These two men were put on trial not only because of evidence of a crime, which was shaky at best, but because of their heritage, and because of their ideology. Socialism was put on trial.”
The text struck home for Richard Koritz, a board member at the civil rights museum and representative with the NC Association of Letter Carriers, who applauded the young culture movers and artists with Elsewhere for staging the read-in. Before taking his turn, Koritz told the gathering that as a child in the 1950s he had been a victim of the anticommunist persecution known as McCarthyism, that his father Phillip had gone to jail while helping organize a strike by black tobacco workers at RJ Reynolds in Winston-Salem in the 1940s and that his grandfather Sam had actively worked with a committee dedicated to freeing Sacco and Vanzetti.
“The fact that an immigrant Jewish worker – he was on the last boat to come across the Atlantic Ocean before the First World War… the guts of people like that,” Koritz said of his grandfather after the event. “He was an immigrant worker who would have had his own problems.”
Plans for the read-in grew out of the desire on the part of the two museums and Elsewhere to collaborate. About six months ago, Carol Ghiorsi Hart, the new director of the historical museum, mentioned to Stephanie Sherman, creative director at Elsewhere, that she was bringing the Fighting the Fires of Hate exhibit from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sherman recalled that she had been thinking about the connections between the occupy and civil rights movements, and how a number of the books in Elsewhere’s collection were on the Nazis’ ban list. Elsewhere came up with the concept of a read-in, and civil rights museum director Bamidele Demerson quickly signed on.
The mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin was on Hart’s mind the day of the read-in.
“This is not so far removed,” she said. “Looking at history, we say, ‘This wouldn’t happen again.’ But it can. With the burning of books we know what happened later.
“One of the reasons the history museum is here is to make connections with some things that are happening today and to challenge our thinking,” Hart continued. “It’s about pursuing wisdom. And not forgetting.”