Letter from NCAC to Protest the Challenging of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Dear School Board Member,

We have recently been informed that Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor, has been challenged as part of the Language Arts Curriculum at Lawton Chiles Middle School. We understand that a parent, who has not read the book, objected because it includes the word "nigger." Although her child was immediately given an alternative reading assignment, the parent has continued to press for the book’s removal.

In our view, by offering an alternative assignment, the school has done all it can and should do to address this parent’s concerns. To go further, as requested, would potentially infringe the First Amendment rights of other parents and students. Whatever rights a parent has to request an alternative assignment for his or her own child, no parent has the right to impose their views on others or to demand that the school adopt and enforce their values and literary preferences.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was awarded the prestigious Newberry Medal in 1977. In it, Mildred Taylor, herself African-American, tells the story of an African- American family fighting to stay together in the face of brutal racist attacks, illness, poverty, and betrayal in the Deep South of the 1930s. Taylor’s response to previous attacks on the book suggest her goals in writing it: "As a parent I understand not wanting a child to hear painful words, but as a parent I do not understand not wanting a child to learn about a history that is part of America, a history about a family representing millions of families that are strong and loving who remain united and strong, despite the obstacles they face." (ALAN Award Acceptance Speech, National Coalition of Teachers of English, 1998.) As Susan Anderson, a school board member in Huntsville, Alabama, said in response to a similar challenge, school is "precisely where children need to learn about these things racial slurs so they don’t carry misperceptions or myths."

Our public educational system is based on the premise that a free and unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to both democracy and education. As the Supreme Court held in Keyishian v. Board of Education, the "classroom is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers ‘truth out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.’" Academic freedom operates as an important safeguard for these principles, and the ability of teachers to use supplementary materials is integral to the creation of a vibrant and healthy learning environment. Moreover, this is a book that has been taught successfully in the district for many years.

Removal of the book would set a dangerous precedent. If curricular decisions can be reversed by any parent who takes the trouble to object, there is hardly a role left for educators. The action would also invite additional challenges from other parents with their own views and preferences, who would similarly expect deference. Most of all, removing a good book harms students and interferes with their "First Amendment right freely to access ideas and receive information." Campell v. St. Tammany Parish School Bd., 64 F.3d 184, 191 (5th Cir.,1995).

Under separate cover, we are sending materials, developed in conjunction with the National Education Association, that discuss the constitutional and educational considerations raised by book challenges such as this. We hope you find it useful. Please feel free to contact us if we can be of further assistance.

Sincerely,

Joan E. Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Cc: Bill Vogel, Ed.D, Superintendant of Seminole County Public Schools
Members of the School Board
District Reading Specialist

The Seminole County School Board had a special meeting on Tuesday January 27th to discuss the complaint against Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The board voted 5-0 to keep Roll of Thunder in the curriculum. Letters in support of the book were sent by us and the National Council of Teachers of English.