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The Lafayette Public Library downtown branch is pictured Tuesday, August 21, 2018, in Lafayette, La.

A discussion on the history of voting rights that the Lafayette Parish Library Board halted last week because they said it was not politically balanced has found new life.

State Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, D-Lafayette, in a news release Tuesday, called the library board's decision to reject a $2,700 Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities grant for a community discussion on books about the history of voting rights "incomprehensible."

Boudreaux said he worked with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and others in the community to transfer a "conversation on the history of voting in the United States" out of the hands of the library board, which "has chosen politics over our people, culture and history."

"Many members of the community and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette have answered the call to negate the intentions of a few political appointments," Boudreaux said.

Details about where and when the community conversation will take place were still being finalized Tuesday.

The library board on Jan. 25 voted 5-2 to reject a $2,700 LEH grant, part of a "Who Gets to Vote?" book reading and discussion on the history of voting rights.

Board members expressed concern that the speakers chosen — Chris Edelson, assistant professor in the government department at American University in Washington, D.C., and Theodore Foster, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — were too "far left." They instructed the library director to select a speaker to present the "other side," the conservative view on voting rights.

"The other side falls in the category of 'Jim Crow Laws' and the 'KKK'," Boudreaux said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "I agree we do need to discuss the other side, as history has proven that if we ignore the past we will be doomed to relive those dark days."

The library system, in a news release Monday — the first day of Black History Month — said board members felt "some of the more current topics to be covered in the program were political and potentially controversial in nature" and the board's goal is "to ensure that the library, as a government agency, should remain a politically neutral, or apolitical, entity."

Some of the topics that may have been discussed, based on the selected books, included historic and contemporary voter suppression practices, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act and the disenfranchisement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Americans, according to the LEH website.

The two books selected for discussion in Lafayette were "Bending Toward Justice" by Gary May, about the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and "Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All," by Martha S. Jones.

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Library Board President Doug Palombo said in the Monday news release the group rejected the grant because the library director did not get a conservative discussion facilitator. Librarian Teresa Elberson retired Jan. 29 after more than 38 years with the library system.

On Tuesday afternoon, the board posted a notice of a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the appointment of an interim library director and to discuss a timeline and preliminary strategy for hiring a director. The meeting is at the main library downtown and is open to the public.

Board members at the Jan. 25 meeting expressed concern over the library system's image, especially among conservative voters, because a property tax that supports the library system is up for renewal in the next year. In 2018, voters failed to renew another property tax, costing the libraries $3 million a year.

Several months after the renewal failed, the library became embroiled in a controversy over Drag Queen Story Time, in which men dressed as women read to children. It was met with outrage, protests and a federal lawsuit. Board members said that was the start of the library's image problem.

The board's Jan. 25 decision to reject the grant, first reported by The Acadiana Advocate, was met with outrage from some in the community. Several groups, including the NAACP, plan on attending the next library board meeting at 5:15 p.m. Feb. 15 at the downtown Lafayette main library to voice their feelings.

The ACLU of Louisiana condemned the board's decision and called for it to reconsider.

"The Lafayette Parish Library Board has shamefully decided to deny their entire community access to bedrock historical events and facts, alleging that truth-telling narrative should necessarily be accompanied by ‘an opposing viewpoint,'" ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms said in a news release Tuesday.

"Teaching the Lafayette community about the historical and ongoing struggle for voting rights in the Black community is not divisive," Odoms said. "On the contrary, it’s affirming for the communities that have been harmed, and could be redemptive for those who’ve sought to inflict such harm should they choose to grapple with the impact of their behaviors. Teaching American history — in its entirety, uncensored and unbiased — is the only safeguard to ensure that history won’t repeat itself."

The League of Women Voters of Lafayette, in a statement Sunday, also condemned the decision, based in part on a statement by an appointee of Mayor-President Josh Guillory that he did not support the LEH grant topic. Guillory and Parish Council members appoint library board members.

"We urge the Lafayette Parish Council to review the procedures in place that have raised questions about how programming and planning for library events ultimately lives or dies by the signature of the mayor-president," the League wrote. 


Email Claire Taylor at ctaylor@theadvocate.com.