By Roy L. Williams
The Board of Trustees of the Birmingham Public Library presented a resolution to the family of the late Shelly Millender Jr., who as a Miles College student in 1963 led a sit-in that eventually led to the desegregation of the downtown library.
The meeting took place Tuesday, August 10, in Arrington Auditorium of the BPL Research Library at 2100 Park Place, which at the time served as the downtown Birmingham Public Library.
In the presentation to Shelly Millender III, his wife and two children, Board of Trustees President Eunice Johnson Rogers commended Millender for his bravery in standing up against segregation in April 1963 and persuading library officials to allow access to all city libraries for Blacks.
“The Board of Trustees is honored to have an opportunity to recognize the strength and bravery of Mr. Millender,” Johnson Rogers said. “His unwavering actions in the face of adversity laid the groundwork for all of the diversity that you see today in the Birmingham Public Library System.”
On April 10, 1963, Millender and former U.S. Federal Judge U.W. Clemon were among Miles College students who staged a sit-in at the downtown Birmingham Public Library protesting a policy that banned blacks. The library leadership agreed to end segregation in the institution, making it one of the few public facilities in Birmingham that was peacefully desegregated.
A former U.S. Army veteran, Millender led a group of Miles College students staging the sit-in protest. In a May 2018 interview on the NPR radio station WBHM 90.3 FM, Millender said, “If I could put my life on the line for the country, certainly I shouldn’t be barred from the library.”
BPL Board of Trustees resolution reads in part:
* Whereas Shelly Millender Jr. walked into the downtown Birmingham Public Library on April 10, 1963, and stood up to a librarian who told him “to go to the colored library” by saying, “No, I want to use this library” and refused to leave…
* Whereas because of his actions, leaders of the Birmingham Public Library agreed to end segregation soon after in what w described as one of the few peaceful desegregation efforts in Birmingham….
* Whereas Shelly Millender Jr. and his brave actions were featured in library historian Wayne S. Wiegand’s book “The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism” and participated in a panel discussion about the event at the Central Library on May 1, 2018.
* Whereas the Trustees of the Birmingham Public Library want to take this opportunity to offer its appreciation to the family of a man who played a vital role in making our libraries welcome to all regardless of race…
Johnson Rogers then closed with a special thanks on behalf of all members of the Board of Trustees and BPL staff. She presented a framed copy of the proclamation, signed by all board members, to Shelly Millender III.
Shelly Millender III, accompanied by his wife and two children at Tuesday’s board meeting, said he was humbled by the BPL Board of Trustees’ support of their family and recognition of his father’s legacy in helping desegregate libraries in Birmingham.
“Thank you so much for this,” Millender III said. “I think of my father’s life in his 86 years and remember him saying to me often it’s important for you to find a way to make a difference, to leave the world better than you found it. One of his favorite sayings was ‘If it is to be, it is up to me’.
Millender III said his father “believed in standing up for what was right and making a difference.”
“Sometimes he talked about putting on courage, putting on tenacity. It is almost as if he was talking about putting on a garment. Sometimes even though we may feel the presence of fear, we have to choose courage. That is what he did when he was involved in fighting library segregation, when he had the opportunity to serve at Miles College as student body president.”
Millender III continued, “I am humbled by this and hope that I can live up to what he started here and was able to walk in for 86 years. Thank you so much for taking this time to recognize his efforts. We are honored and most appreciative.”
Wiegand calls black activists like Millender who desegregated public libraries “hidden figures” who helped improve life for Blacks in the Deep South.
The American Library Association apologized for its silence during the 1960s on library segregation after Wiegand addressed the group at the 2018 ALA Conference in New Orleans.
Read more about Millender and his trailblazing efforts in the civil rights movement, as a businessman and as a popular radio show host of “Let’s Talk” by clicking on this BPL blog written after he died in July.