From Banned Books to Burning Books

Photo by Freddie Kearney

PEN America recently reported that there were 1,586 individual book bans over the past nine months, affecting 1,145 unique titles. These events occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states; they represented 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of more than 2 million.

“The novelty that people understand is that this is organized and implemented on a level that we haven’t seen before,” noted Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America. “It’s part of a politically relevant movement, but in large part to stir up anger over school books in an election year.” He added:

But what we’re seeing here is coordination. In many regions, the list of books to challenge is the same. The objection excerpts are the same across regions. Whether they relate to race or racism or LGBTQ characters or gender, the same lines or images have been used to remove these books and have been targeted across states.

Today’s censorship wars target classics like Harper Lee to kill a robinJohn Steinbeck’s between humans and mice and Art Spiegelman’s mouse and books dealing with homosexuality and gender identity, such as Maia Kobabe’s gender queerJustin Richardson’s Tango makes threeRuby Bridge’s Ruby Bridge School. In addition, Pulitzer Prize-winning research, New York Times 1619 itemsDeveloped by Nikole Hannah-Jones, it has been widely criticized for its alleged reliance on “critical race theory”. PEN has compiled a comprehensive index of banned books. Equally disturbing, 26 states have passed or are considering “anti-pornography” book bans.


Some Americans have long feared words and images, whether deemed sacrilegious (i.e. blasphemous), pornographic (i.e. sexually suggestive) or subversive (i.e. threatening the government). On October 17, 1650, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony condemned a 158-page book of theology, The precious price we have redeemed, by William Pynchon, a businessman and founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, as it questions the Puritan doctrine of atonement. The book was banned in the colonies, and all copies were publicly burned at the Boston market.

Words can lead to the end of 19th In the century, Anthony Comstock’s anti-obscenity campaign culminated in the passage of the Comstock Act of 1873 by the US Congress, which prohibited the distribution of illegal material by mail. In the 1910s, towards the end of his life, Comstock claimed that he destroyed 3,984,063 photographs and 160 tons of “obscene” literature.These laws will remain in effect until the 1950s

at 20th Over the centuries, wave after wave of censorship movements. The 1920s were marked not only by Palmer’s raid and expulsion of anarchists, but the banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses And, in Boston, DH Lawrence’s lady chatterley’s lover with Sinclair Lewis Elmer Gantry. It also saw Catholic leaders push a national censorship bill in an effort to “clean up” Hollywood films. It culminated in the 1925 Scopes experiment on the evolution of teaching.

During the late 1940s and mid-1950s, comics were subject to wave after wave of censorship campaigns at the city and state levels. Between 1947 and 1949 alone, more than a hundred cities large and small across the country passed laws or ordinances prohibiting the display or sale of comic books. These events take place in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles; in Baltimore, Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Sacramento as well as in Ann Arbor (MI), Coral Gables (FL), Falls Church (VA), Hillsdale (MI), Prospect Hill (IL) and Nashua (NH).

The anti-comic atmosphere heated up in ’54 and ’55, and more than a dozen states were considering or enacting legislatures to regulate or suppress comic books. These states include California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington State.

Efforts to censor comics are perhaps the most contentious in New York state, given the large number of publishers operating out of Gotham City. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court winters and new york, repeals, on grounds of unconstitutionality, a state law that prohibits the publication and/or distribution of material “consisting primarily of crime news, police reports or records of criminal conduct, pictures or stories of bloodshed, lust, or criminal conduct.” In ’49, however, state Assemblyman James Fitzpatrick organized a joint legislative committee to study the publication of comics to shape the legislature to circumvent court rulings.

Part of his work involves investigating state judges and district attorneys. In ’54, the state legislature held a hearing on juvenile delinquency with New York psychiatrist Fredric Wertham as star witness. The state legislature and the Senate passed some bills restricting cartoons, but Gov. Thomas Dewey vetoed them on constitutional grounds. However, in ’55, the new governor, Averill Harriman, approved the restrictive cartoon known as the “Fitzpatrick Act.”

Calls for censorship of comics in the late 1940s and 1950s were fueled by isolated but recurring incidents of juvenile delinquency involving retail theft, car robberies, murder or suicide. Wetham and others have repeatedly linked comics to crime. One thing angered New Yorkers. In August 1954, four white Jewish youths from Brooklyn – Jerome Lieberman, Melvin Mitman, Jack Coslow and Robert Trachtenberg – were murdered there Willard Mentor, a 34-year-old black man who worked in a burlap sack factory, was arrested. During the trial, the four allegedly killed another man earlier. Equally exciting, the young men were accused of assaulting neighborhood girls walking in a local park, whipping them with a bullwhip ordered from a comic book classified ad. Coslow admitted that he was a regular comic book reader who was inspired by the series, Horror night. The media dubbed these teens the “Brooklyn Thrill Killers” and they became the poster child for juvenile delinquency.

Ray Bradbury publishes his sci-fi classic, Fahrenheit 451, 1953. The title indicates the temperature at which the paper burns. It’s a dystopian novel about postmodern “firefighters” censoring threatening texts by incineration, and a commitment to keeping the written word — as a remembered oral text — small, isolated, alive Community. Bradbury wrote his classic story at a time when more than a dozen communities across the country were burning comic books.


No one is sarcastic, a superman The comics were first lit and then used to light the fire. In December, students at St. Patrick’s Parish School in Binghamton, N.Y., collected and burned some 2,000 comic books and pictorial magazines. The bonfire was held in the school yard and most of the students attended. The students also launched a boycott against local businessmen who would not promise to remove “repulsive and indecent literature, comic books, etc.” from their newsstands. Also in ’48, comic book bonfires were held at St. Peter and Paul Parish School in Auburn, NY, and St. Cyril’s Parish School in Chicago.

In ’49, comic book burnings occurred in Ramson, NJ, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In Ramson, Scouts go on a two-day drive to collect objectionable comic books and burn them in the city’s Victory Park; the Scout with the most books wins the right to set fires. At the last minute, school officials decided not to burn the books, but to throw them in the trash. In Cape Girardeau, Girl Scouts lead the charge. They collected the cartoons and took them to a local Catholic high school, St. Mary’s, where the students conducted a mock test to determine whether the cartoons were “leading young people astray and creating false perceptions in young people’s minds.” . The jury found the cartoons guilty, and the students burned them.


Today’s censorship wars are part of a larger culture war driven by white evangelical Christians, who are a large part of the Republican radical base. They are launching an apparently coordinated campaign against women’s right to determine pregnancy, gay/trans rights, and “critical race theory.”

When asked what Americans could do about the war on review, PEN America’s Friedman said: “I think the key now is participation. People need to have their voices heard.” He added: “I think it’s a A very simple message, no matter what your political stance, we don’t believe in America banning books. We believe in free speech. We believe in free access to information. How regulation in schools needs to reflect those principles.”

“It’s a very simple, nonpartisan message,” Friedman insisted. “This is not a message about left or right, LBGTQ or race, but a fundamental belief that we shouldn’t ban books in this country.”

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