March 2002 Church & State | Featured

Efforts by fundamentalist religious groups to ban books for allegedly promoting "witchcraft" are nothing new in the United States. About 100 years ago, a battle similar to the current attacks on the Harry Potter series raged nationwide. Its unlikely target: L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.

Most Americans today know the Land of Oz from the famous 1939 Metro Goldwyn Mayer musical starring Judy Garland. But the book, published in 1900, is substantially different from the film it inspired. Unlike the movie, Baum's Oz is a real fairyland, not just the product of a Kansas farm girl's dream.

The first Oz book was so successful that Baum produced 13 sequels, most of which recount the further adventures of Dorothy and an ever-growing cast of characters. Oz is populated with fantastic denizens, including good and bad witches, wizards, man-sized talking insects, enchanted rag dolls that come to life and dancing fairies, to name just a few.

Some ministers and even educators of the day were not happy with the series and blasted it for promoting witchcraft or for being too fanciful. Others said the books were ungodly for their strong depictions of female characters. Surprisingly, many librarians agreed.

These attacks continued well into the 20th century. In 1999, Hana S. Field, then a high school student in Chicago, researched the history of efforts to censor The Wizard of Oz. The parallels to today's attempt to ban the Harry Potter series are striking.

Field found that opposition to The Wizard of Oz was so strong that as late as 1928 the Chicago Public Library refused to put the book on its shelves. Field reports that one patron asked for the Oz books but was told they were not there. The man got the impression that the librarians believed that the books were "not literature, but, somehow evil for children."

In the 1950s, Florida's state librarian, Dorothy Dodd, sent a memo to all librarians in the state calling The Wizard of Oz "unwholesome for children in your community" and cautioned that it was on a list of books that they must avoid. The Oz books, Dodd asserted, were "not be purchased, not to be accepted as gifts, not to be processed and not be circulated."

In a prize-winning 1999 essay, "Triumph and Tragedy on the Yellow Brick Road: Censorship of The Wizard of Oz in America," which appears in The Concord Review, Field notes that Dodd's broadside had an unusual effect. "When children heard news of the ban," she wrote, "they eagerly ran to local used bookstores and a local women's club hoping they could buy the book."

A more recent attempt to ban The Wizard of Oz occurred in 1986, when fundamentalist parents in Hawkins County, Tenn., challenged several books used in local public schools, asserting that they promoted witchcraft and "secular humanism." The Wizard of Oz was among the works challenged. The lead plaintiff, Vicki Frost, said Baum's story depicted some witches as good, when in fact witches are always bad.

A federal court handed Frost a limited victory by holding that the public school system would have to allow parents who objected to "opt out" of lessons featuring the offending literature. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 1987, and the U.S. Supreme Court later refused to hear the case. That action led Religious Right attorney Michael Farris, who represented Frost, to call on "every born-again Christian to get their children out of public schools."

That statement returned to haunt Farris in 1993 when he ran for lieutenant governor of Virginia. In a year when other Republicans did very well in the state, Farris lost in part because his opponent, Don Beyer, ran television ads featuring a clip from the film version of "The Wizard of Oz" that blasted Farris as an extremist who wanted to ban books.

Today, The Wizard of Oz is considered a classic and is often called the first "American fairy tale." Although it does not appear on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Censored Titles, The Wizard of Oz is still occasionally lumped in with the Harry Potter series by outraged fundamentalists determined to purge "witchcraft" from public schools and libraries.

Field, now a junior political science major at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told Church & State there are lessons to be learned from the efforts to ban The Wizard of Oz. "We don't seem to learn," she said. "If you start censoring books because they have witches in them, where do you stop? A small group of people ends up making decisions for a lot of people. That's just not democracy."