It begins like a spy movie. Late one night in the autumn of 1975, a group of school board members on Long Island New York asked the janitor to let them into the library, where they began rifling through the card catalog looking for titles from a leaflet in their hand. The flyer was produced by a group called “Parents of New York United,” and cited 33 titles that the group deemed objectionable for various reasons.
The school board found 11 titles from the list in the library’s collection, and soon they had succeeded (against the librarian’s and superintendant’s objections ) in having all the titles removed from the collection, on grounds that they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” One of the banned books, cited on the handout as being objectionable because it “equates Malcolm X, considered by many to be a traitor to this country, with the founding fathers of our country,” was Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver.
One of the Black Power movement’s most distinctive voices during the sixties, Cleaver turned to writing in prison as a way of understanding who he was and what he had done with his life. As Cleaver writes,
After I returned to prison, I took a long look at myself and, for the first time in my life, admitted that I was wrong, that I had gone astray — astray not so much from the white man’s law as from being human, civilized — for I could not approve the act of rape. Even thought I had some insight into my own motivations, I did not feel justified. I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered. That is why I started to write. To save myself.
The result was Soul on Ice, a book that is by turns searing confessional memoir, incendiary polemic, and thoughtful meditation on the state of race in America. The book continues to provoke and inform today, as both an original view into the Civil Rights era and the Black Power movement, and a stirring cry against racism in all its guises and forms.
As for the Long Island banning, students in the Middle and High schools sued the school district in a case that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court (Board of Education v. Pico). By a narrow margin, the students won the decision, and after seven years off the shelves, the books were restored to the collection.