The State of Indiana versus Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a mythical hero dating back to the 13th or 14th century. As the story goes — at least in a modern retelling — Robin Hood is an outlaw, a talented archer dressed in emerald green garb who robs from the rich and gives most of his takings to the poor. Despite the fact that he’s a criminal, he’s almost always seen as one of the good guys: not only are Robin’s intentions good, but also the local authorities, led by the Sheriff of Nottingham and in some adaptations, Prince John, are corrupt officials who seize land wantonly and otherwise oppress the people under their rule. Robin and his band of “Merry Men” — basically, his outlaw buddies — wage war on the Sheriff and his cronies in the name of justice.

That’s the basic story, at least. But not everyone saw Robin Hood as a hero. In one instance, in the 1950s, the state of Indiana tried to kick him out of their schools.

The close of World War II ushered in the Cold War, and almost immediately, a wave of anti-Communism spread across the United States. In some cases, most famously those led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, fear of a Communist takeover became a danger unto itself. McCarthyism, as it would later become known, looked to root out any and all Communist influence in the United States, even in some of the most ridiculous, far-fetched situations.

In 1953, the Indiana school textbook commission provided one such example. That November, a commission member known as Mrs. Thomas White proposed that Robin Hood be removed from the bookshelves of the state’s classrooms. Her reasoning? It wasn’t solely because Robin Hood was a criminal. According to History, Mrs. White objected to his efforts to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, asserting “that’s the communist line. It’s just a smearing of law and order and anything that disrupts law and order is their meat.” 

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. The state superintendent, according to History, declined to remove the book from the curriculum (although he did re-read it first, to make sure it wasn’t actually Red dressed up in green) and the governor similarly declined to intervene. But those who supported Robin Hood weren’t going to take any chances. Mrs. White’s pronouncement sparked a movement among those who disagreed with her, inspiring them to fight back against McCarthyism.

These critics described themselves as the ‘Green Feather Movement,” aligning themselves with Robin Hood even down to their organization name. The movement originated at Indiana University in direct response to Mrs. White’s overreach and it expanded rapidly. In May of 1954, the Harvard Crimson reported that the Movement had chapters at the Universities of Michigan, Illinois, and Purdue, and was about to expand into Harvard itself. The message, across all of these schools, was one and the same — a desire to end censorship and, ultimately, McCarthyism itself. (Wearing a green cloak or tights was optional.)

Their goals were achieved. Robin Hood remained unbanned and, more importantly (although hardly solely by their efforts) by the end of 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy, massively curtailing his efforts in the process. Merry Men everywhere continued to be merry.

Bonus fact: While there almost certainly never was a real Robin Hood, there most definitely his a real-life sheriff of Nottingham, even today. Nottingham is a real place in England and it has a sheriff, although the job has no real duties. At this point, it mostly exists as a PR stunt in an effort to draw tourists to the area.

From the Archives: Lighting Up the Switchboards: How Communists voted for their favorite contestants in a televised singing competition.