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Paranoia in Power

Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland by Shirley Wiegand and Wayne Wiegand: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007, 280 pages, $24.95

Occasionally in even a democratic society, a small group of people appoint themselves the voice of authority and the conscience of the nation, threatening the very liberties they claim to defend. It is what Books on Trial authors Shirley Wiegand, law professor at Marquette University, and Wayne Wiegand, FSU professor of library and information studies, call "an arrogance of power" that "results in self-censorship, the discouragement of dissenting voices, and ultimately the limitation of social reform." But too often, the voice of power is the dissenting voice, while the popular voice—the majority voice—is the one being silenced.

In the summer of 1940, Oklahoma City police raided the small Progressive Book Store and five homes, seizing box loads of books and arresting several people, including 33-year-old state Communist Party Secretary Bob Wood and his wife Ina. Among books seized were John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and The Collected Works of Jack London. "The only thing they could say about me was that I read and sold books, most of which are available in large public and college libraries throughout the country," said Wood, who nevertheless was fined $5,000 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, as was his wife and several other co-defendants.

Police, attorneys, and judges trying the defendants understood little about the Communist agenda and didn't care. What disturbed the county attorney most was the notion of equal rights for all citizens. While prosecutors claimed that Wood and his cohorts advocated violence, destruction of property and murder, they proved only that he consorted with African Americans and Jews and sold books.

Protests from "thousands (if not tens of thousands) of private citizens poured into the offices of the county attorney, the state attorney general, and the governor." Newspapers across the country editorialized in favor of free speech, free assembly and fundamental civil rights. Finally, in 1943 the Criminal Court of Appeals reversed the district court's opinion.

The Wiegands note the parallels between the "paranoid politics" of that day and the present "chain of civil liberties violations." Even with the world at war, when the civil rights of a few citizens were threatened, people across the nation got it—their rights, too, stood in harms way.

-Gena Caponi-Tabery