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Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland

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How civil liberties triumphed over national insecurity

Between the two major red scares of the twentieth century, a police raid on a Communist Party bookstore in Oklahoma City marked an important lesson in the history of American freedom.

In a raid on the Progressive Bookstore in 1940, local officials seized thousands of books and pamphlets and arrested twenty customers and proprietors. All were detained incommunicado and many were held for months on unreasonably high bail. Four were tried for violating Oklahoma’s “criminal syndicalism” law, and their convictions and ten-year sentences caused a nationwide furor. After protests from labor unions, churches, publishers, academics, librarians, the American Civil Liberties Union, members of the literary world, and prominent individuals ranging from Woody Guthrie to Eleanor Roosevelt, the convictions were overturned on appeal.

Shirley A. Wiegand and Wayne A. Wiegand share the compelling story of this important case for the first time. They reveal how state power—with support from local media and businesses—was used to trample individuals’ civil rights during an era in which citizens were gripped by fear of foreign subversion.

Richly detailed and colorfully told, Books on Trial is a sobering story of innocent people swept up in the hysteria of their times. It marks a fascinating and unnerving chapter in the history of Oklahoma and of the First Amendment. In today’s climate of shadowy foreign threats—also full of unease about the way government curtails freedom in the name of protecting its citizens—the past speaks to the present.



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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

On August 17, 1940, Oklahoma City police raided the Progressive Book Store, seized thousands of books and pamphlets, and arrested the owner, Bob Wood, his wife and a dozen others who happened to be in the store, under state laws against distributing materials aimed at "effecting industrial or political revolution." Shirley Wiegand and Wayne Wiegand, professors, respectively, of law and American studies, examine the social, legal and cultural currents surrounding the arrest, conviction and eventual vindication of Wood and the three other alleged Community Party members who were eventually tried. The case became a national cause célèbre; Lillian Hellman, Richard Wright and Clifford Odets were among those who spoke out for the defendants. This is a sedulously researched book, and the details of the trials expose prosecutor John Eberle as driven by rank ambition and rabid racism and anti-Semitism as much as by anticommunism. The authors show that local media and politicians failed to foresee the national outrage the prosecutions would generate. Particularly interesting is how they show the effect of external events, such as the U.S. entry into WWII and fascism's impact on the domestic atmosphere. The Wiegands conclude on a cautionary note, linking present-day antiterrorism fears to the anticommunist hysteria of 1940. B&w illus. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Sobering account of a 1940 bookstore raid that unleashed a fury of protest from civil libertarians and a flurry of support from the political right. On August 17, Oklahoma City police officers entered the Progressive Bookstore at 129½ West Grand. Proprietor Bob Wood (an alias) was secretary of the state Communist Party, and most of the shop's customers were either party members or sympathizers. The police arrested everyone inside and seized cartons of material, some expected (Marx et al.), some worthy of a lifted eyebrow (biographies of Jefferson and Dickens). Indictments and trials followed. In their debut volume, the husband-and-wife team of Shirley A. Wiegand (Law/Marquette Univ.) and Wayne A. Wiegand (American Studies/Florida State Univ.) follow an unsurprising arc from the raids and the reactions through the trials to the aftermath, providing plenty of human interest along the way. The accused were convicted of violating Oklahoma's "syndicalism laws," which banned speech of any sort calling for the overthrow of the government. Juries often took very little time to deliberate before handing down guilty verdicts with recommendations for the maximum sentence: a $5,000 fine and 10 years in the penitentiary. Judges were happy to accommodate. News of the Oklahoma doings spread quickly. The ACLU supported the defendants; Woody Guthrie wrote songs for them; Richard Wright, Lillian Hellman and other writers protested the trials; the Eastern presses rolled with words of condemnation. On the other side, the KKK and like-minded allies donned their actual and metaphorical white robes. All the convictions were eventually reversed on appeal, but the authors point out that the determination of somegovernment officials to ignore the inconvenient Bill of Rights is still very much with us. A thorough study of madness.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806138688
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Shirley A. Wiegand is Professor of Law at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Wayne A. Wiegand is the F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies and Professor of American Studies at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida.

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