Memphis Censors Comics

1954 was an unpleasant year for the comic book industry. In the spring, psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a scathing assessment of superhero, crime and horror comics. He asserted that these books were not safe for young people because of their corrupting factors. This influence made them a leading cause of juvenile delinquency, which was a widespread fear among adults in the 1950s. His writings led to an outcry against comic books in magazine and newspaper editorials as well as a series of hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. In April 1954, Wetham took the stand and stated,

“I can only say that in my opinion this is a public-health problem. I think it ought to be possible to determine once and for all what is in these comic books and I think it ought to be possible to keep the children under 15 from seeing them displayed to them and preventing these being sold directly to children.”

The comic book industry was in the disagreeable position of choosing between eventual government oversight and self-regulation. Magazine owners chose to form the Comic Magazine Association of America and institute the Comics Code Authority, which set censorship guidelines for comic book writers and illustrators.

Comic book bonfire
Meanwhile, some Memphians decided to take matters into their own hands. In September 1954, The Commercial Appeal published a series of columns by Peter Molloy about the content of “children’s dime literature.” Public response to these articles led Mayor Frank Tobey to bolster the powers of the city’s comic book study committee, which had been established in 1949, by giving them the power to ban questionable literature,The ten member committee would review books and ban any that three or more members deemed objectionable on the basis of crime, torture, sex, horror, vulgarity and advertising contents. These titles were permanently banned from sale in the city, regardless of the content of future issues. Additionally, Police Commissioner Claude Armour asked the city’s fifty-five branches of the Council of Civic Clubs to form a watch-dog group and make recommendations to the mayor’s committee. The area’s comic book distributors agreed to cooperate with the decisions made by the mayor’s official group.

The Bluff City Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, which represented 26 African American schools, decided to encourage its individual members to hold “comic book burning parties” on October 30th to celebrate Halloween and promote and support the censorship campaign. The Sherwood School PTA planned to burn comics collected throughout the neighborhood, but they also wanted to clearly disassociate its bonfire from a book-burning campaign. The Commercial Appeal supported their stance in an editorial by stating, “Just as it is possible to destroy a mad dog and not be again dogs, it is possible to destroy mad books and not be against books.”

The mayor’s committee met monthly at the Pink Palace to vote on previously read titles. By December, the committee had reviewed 247 comic books and voted to ban 111 of them from the city. At the request of the Comic Magazine Association of America, the committee agreed to re-review the previously censored titles after new versions were published with the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval. While the city’s and the country’s comic book frenzy eventually dissipated, the comic book industry took decades to recover.
For more information about censorship in the comic books, visit http://cbldf.org/resources/history-of-comics-censorship/

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One thought on “Memphis Censors Comics

  1. Reblogged this on Ideas and Thinks and commented:
    I found a very short article about a group of comic book censors meeting at the museum in one of the museum’s press scrapbooks. Since I had to go to the library to look at microfilm for an unrelated exhibit, I decided to do a little extra digging and figure out what the story was. So here you go, the story of Memphis’ fight against the dastardly influence of comic books:

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