Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000
The notion that a bad movie could be made about intense conflicts involving race, gender and ideology is plausible; didactic drama can be unappealing. This is especially so when an attempt is made to set lofty issues in a small Oklahoma city. The fact that such a film was made and that Bette Davis played the lead role makes suggests that something very strange was going on. And it was. "Storm Centre" was the name of the 1956 cinematic dud that told the story of Miss Ruth Brown. Perhaps the time was not right. Perhaps, it might have worked better if Robert Altman had directed Angela Lansbury in the leading role sometime between her performance in the original Manchurian Candidate and his direction of MASH.
The movie, like it or not, is an important element in the story of Miss Ruth Brown, but it is not the centre of the storm. That place belongs to Miss Ruth Brown herself. A long-time librarian, she had given over thirty years' service to the bustling community of Bartlesville, Oklahoma when she was fired in 1950. America's self-proclaimed "ideal family center," Bartlesville was located just ninety kilometres north of Tulsa. It prided itself on the combination of the virtues of a small town and the prosperity and cultural assets of a thriving city. Bartlesville was, among other things, home to the headquarters of Phillips Petroleum and Cities Service Oil Company, both important employers and central to the community's success.
Miss Ruth Brown was dedicated to the enlightenment of the community and especially to its children. Though described as a having an "abrupt manner" with adults, she doted on the youngsters who came to borrow her books. Once she was engaged, but she broke it off and declared early on that she "was not a person who should get married." Her library was "like a marriage," and it came with children ready-made.
Just as there was another side to Bartlesville, which was its black neighbourhood and segregated schools, literally on the other side of the tracks, so there was another side to Miss Ruth Brown. The prim lady librarian with a sometimes brusque manner but a warm heart was unimpressed with Bartlesville's entrenched racism. She quietly and quite tentatively worked to integrate the library by gradually expanding services to blacks. By mid-century, writes Louise Robbins, she included "Negro Digest" and "Ebony" in the library's collection. She also worked closely with the educators of the segregated Douglass School for African-Americans. These mild actions were enough to demonstrate to the community that she "was actively fighting Jim Crow laws in the library and out."
She befriended local black educators and invited a black woman to join her in church. Her co-religionists were shocked. She was labeled a "pushy" integrationist. With three black friends, she asked to be served at a local drugstore, the largest of its kind to offer light meals. They were refused, of course, and departed with dignity. The incident left many respectable people aghast. Such "direct action" may not seem particularly unsettling in light of events a decade or two later; however, in Bartlesville in 1950, when YWCA programs for black children were deemed subversive, Miss Ruth Brown was becoming the next thing to a revolutionary.
Miss Ruth Brown was dismissed for declining an order to remove subversive, "pro-communist" literature from the library. The principal cases in point were a 1943 book called The Russians (which described America's wartime ally during the struggle against Hitler), and two US periodicals, "The New Republic" and "The Nation."
The path to her firing was tortuous and involved the connivance of city officials, the culture of fear on the cusp of McCarthyism and what now seems like the abnegation of responsibility on the part of Miss Ruth Brown's natural supporters in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the American Civil Liberties Union and even the American and Oklahoma Library Associations. Lacking funds, organizational strength and any expectation of victory, their support was tepid. Even the black principal of the Douglass School (a man Miss Ruth Brown greatly respected) tried to mute her voice. Bartlesville was, he said, "too far south and too small a town" to become the focal point for a civil rights struggle. Br'er fox, he lay low.
In this valuable volume, the community forces that lined up on both sides are clearly discussed and explained. The reluctance of some and the enthusiasm of others make for fascinating reading. Less helpful is the absence of a thorough treatment of one of the most interesting aspects of the fightnamely, the sharp division on the issue between factions of the middle class employees of Phillips Petroleum. Some joined the public campaign to save Miss Brown's job and others supported her removal. In this internal conflict might be seen the seeds of southern debates for decades to come. On the one side was the old south with its bigotry disguised as good manners; on the other was the new, entrepreneurial and robust south, which would eventually supplant ante bellum nostalgia with techno-industrial modernity. Orval Faubus and Bull Connor would eventually give way to Jimmy Carter and Andrew Young.
As Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant wisely observed, the civil rights movement in the American South won because it was in the interest of US capitalism to be rid of this atavism. As recent commentators have said of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education fifty years ago, the formal dissolution of segregation was essential to domestic economic policy and to the foreign policy objectives of Dean Acheson. It simply would not do for the US to preach democracy abroad while sustaining a form of apartheid at home. The twin towers of American life, the armed services and professional baseball had been integrated. The rest would follow, though at a cost.
Robbins' failure to delve deeply into the division between retrogressive and progressive tendencies in the emerging professional middle class is, however, a comparatively small flaw in an otherwise gripping tale of racism, anti-communist hysteria and conflicting social attitudes in an America in transition. The narrative of personality and place is more than enough to sustain our interest.
Which brings us back to the motion picture. It ran into trouble from the start. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper declared (incorrectly, of course) that the screen-play had been written by Carl Foreman, who had been blacklisted after writing the classic western, "High Noon" and would have to wait nine years before getting another important acknowledged assignment, "The Guns of Navarone." Crusaders against "communist" authors such as Pearl Buck, John Dewey, Carl Sandburg and John Steinbeck raged against a film that would hold America up to ridicule. The Catholic Legion of Decency condemned it as "warped," whereas the Catholic journal "Commonweal" defended it and criticized the CLD. In a political oddity, the Daughters of the American Revolution and Eleanor Roosevelt both endorsed the movie.
When it was finally finished, the film ignored the race issue, which was central to the real story. Instead, it devolved into a civics lesson on the matter of free speech. As a result, Newsweek (September 10, 1956) dismissed it as "shameless melodrama" while the Library Journal (July 1956), claimed that "the ending, both melodramatic and symbolical, is one that will transfix any book-lover." It was denounced by the American Legion and honoured at Cannes. Pick it up at your local video store and judge for yourself. And, while doing so, recall that Miss Ruth Brown lost her job … permanently.
In time, she would be consigned to a nursing home by one of her adopted daughters, only to be rescued by the other. She died in 1975, at the age of 84 and had her body donated to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center. In what may also be a melodramatic epitaph, Louise Robbins concludes that "it was people like Ruth Brown … who made Martin Luther King, Jr. possible." That may well be.
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