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She’s been a champion– not only on the tennis court but also for equal rights– yet discussions in recent months as to whether to name Long Beach’s new main branch after Billie Jean King, a native of the city, have been marked by controversy. Some said she is not known primarily as a literary figure or that her name is not synonymous with libraries, whereas others pointed out that she has published several books and that athletes are required to maintain high academic standards. Others argued that most large cities do not name their main branches after people.
However, on Sept. 21, those differences appeared to have been put aside during the grand opening of the Billie Jean King Main Library, located at 200 W. Broadway, in downtown Long Beach. In an event that began with several lively songs performed by the Long Beach Polytechnic High School marching band, hundreds of attendees filled the street outside the 92,000-square-foot building to welcome not only the new facility, but its eponym herself.
“Today, I’ve come full circle in my return to Long Beach,” King told the crowd. “Without the people of Long Beach, I never, ever would have had the opportunity to launch my tennis career, travel the world and have a platform to, hopefully, make a difference in the lives of others.”
King then focused her address on the history of the city’s library system– the first branch having opened 123 years ago in a room adjoining the city council office.
“I love the fact that the origins of the Long Beach Public Library date back to 1896, when the Women’s Temperance Union provided 200 books to open its doors,” King said. “That leaders like longtime Long Beach librarian Blanche Collins spoke up against censorship in the 1960s and led a successful fight that prevented books from being banned nationwide.”
King said her father– a police officer and firefighter– and her mother– a Tupperware salesperson– both heavily influenced King and her brother, Randy Moffitt, by encouraging them to live their dreams.
“We were a blue-collar family,” King said, “but my parents always told us we could be anything we wanted to be, that no dream was too big.”
Moffitt went on to be a Major League Baseball pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays; King ultimately became a World No. 1 tennis player.
“Randy and I loved to read, but we couldn’t afford to buy books,” King said. “So, one day, my mom sat down on the sofa, and she said, ‘Come over here, children. I want to talk to you.’ She went into her handbag, and she pulled out a card, and it was a library card. And she said, ‘You will always be able to read because of this card, and it’s free, which is so helpful to our family.’ So, that made such a difference in our lives.”
King said that, when she was younger, she slept with her tennis racquet, her tennis sweater and the books she’d checked out from the library. It was her friend Susan Williams who’d introduced her to the game of tennis, King said. Previously, she had only played in team sports. After only one tennis lesson, King knew what her calling would be.
“At the end of that first session, I knew what I wanted to do with my life– I wanted to be the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world,” King said. “I’ll never forget telling my mommy: ‘Mommy, Mommy, I found out what I’m going to do with my life!’ And she says, ‘That’s fine. You have homework.’”
But King said it was a little later, when she was 13 years old, that she had “the real epiphany” that changed her life forever.
“I was sitting, and I was daydreaming, and I thought about my sport of tennis,” she said. “Everybody wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, playing with white balls, and everybody who played was white. And I asked myself, at 13: ‘Where is everyone else?’ That was the day I committed my life to fighting for equality for every human being.”
Among the other speakers at the event was Mayor Robert Garcia, who said any time a city opens a new library is a wonderful day in that city.
He indicated that Long Beach’s new main branch is a symbol of “where the city is going” and “the crown jewel” of the new civic-center plaza.
“There is nothing more important than education,” Garcia said, “and this library will serve as a beacon of education here in the center of our downtown.”