How Mississippi Got Away with Teaching Racist History
Hint: some very bad textbooks
Good morning, subscribers, friends, and enemies,
Last week, we looked at how a fringe school, founded by a gassy cult-member, moved American higher education to the right. This week, we look at a lawsuit in Mississippi that shows how, until the 1980s, many high schools taught a delusional view of the past:
Today’s story comes from Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, as well as an article by Robert Coles, an evaluation of US history standards, and a little known book/movie series called Lord of the Rings.
Next time on Skipped History…
We’ll look at the person who made a concerted effort to infuse US history textbooks with a white supremacist-y view of the past. There will be Confederates, there will be textbooks, and There. Will. Be. A pear.
Sometimes people ask if I’ve found the last few years a good time to be a comedian, the implication being that the bigoted buffoon in The White House (who I hope soon moves to the Big House) supplies ample material.
My answer is always hell no. I saw this Tweet that does a better job than me explaining why:
Amen. Until next Thursday!
Can’t wait for next week? Follow Skipped History on Twitter for more bits of skipped history.
This week’s transcript
Hello, I’m Ben Tumin, and welcome to Skipped History. Today’s story is about a 1975 court case that exposed the polarizing history of high school history. I read about it in Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, who was one of the plaintiffs.
To understand his case, let’s first look at a more famous one: Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that struck down segregated schools… kind of. Turns out, the stroke of a pen doesn’t make you suddenly go, “Oh, integration, why didn’t I think of that!” And that was the case in Mississippi, where ten years after the ruling, the state spent four times as much on white students as on Black students. The inequities extended to curricula, where state-selected textbooks ignored achievements by Black Americans, glossed over the Civil Rights Movement, and glorified the “Southern way of life,” which, as best I understand it, consisted of sipping mint juleps in seersucker suits while enjoying the profits generated by forced labor.
In 1974, two authors, James Loewen and Charles Sallis, set out to redefine Mississippi's history in Mississippi: Conflict and Change. Unlike previous history textbooks, their book included statements like, ''White Southerners created an ideology justifying slavery,” ''Black children received especially poor treatment in Mississippi's school system,” and ''The KKK became an instrument of terror throughout the South.” Those statements shouldn’t be controversial, and to some people, they weren’t: the book earned praise and accolades among historians and educators for its fuller portrayal of Mississippi’s history. Some people, however, weren’t as keen, including five on the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board.
What is a state textbook purchasing board? Well, it’s kind of like having a personal shopper you’ve never met who periodically tells you what really boring books you just have to read—which, come to think of it, is like having me as a friend on Goodreads. Anyway, in 1975, the Mississippi Board rejected adoption of Conflict and Change in a 5-2 vote because, as one board member said, the book was “too racially oriented.” Instead, the board’s decision meant that the hundreds of thousands of Mississippi kids who took 9th-grade history would have to read Your Mississippi by John K. Bettersworth.
Bettersworth’s book was not better, which wasn’t news to Civil Rights Activists. In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee started Freedom Schools ) that taught students history lessons they didn’t learn in school and to help them “challenge the myths of our society.” Your Mississippi perpetuated those myths, glorifying segregationist Mississippi governors like Ross Barnett and Theodore Bilbo who, yes, was very short, had hairy feet, and responded to adversity like this:
Your Mississippi also said that Reconstruction, the brief period after the Civil War when Black citizens finally received civil rights, “was a worse battle than the war had ever been,” which from the standpoint of a white supremacist, might be true, but as one young attendee of a Freedom School in Mississippi asked, “Why should we go to school and read books that tell us that racists like Ross Barnett and Bilbo were nice men [when after Reconstruction] the whites started lynching us and treating us like slaves again, with the segregation!” A great question: more lynchings occurred in Mississippi than in any other state, hence why on page 178 of Conflict and Change Loewen and Sallis included a photo of a man who’d been lynched.
That photo became the focal point of Loewen and Sallis’ 1975 lawsuit against the Mississippi Board, arguing that the board limited academic freedom. The case went to trial in 1980, and the climax came when the Mississippi State Attorney General asked a member of the textbook board, John Turnipseed—I swear, all these names are real—why he had objected to Conflict and Change. Turnipseed had the court turn to page 178, and pointing to the photo of the lynching, said, "Now, you know some ninth-graders are pretty big, especially Black male ninth-graders. And… I worried that teachers, especially white lady teachers, would have trouble controlling their classes, with material like this in the book."
At that point, 83-year-old Judge Orma Smith, whose picture I can’t find on the Internet but whom I imagined looked like this, stepped in and asked, "But that happened, didn't it? Didn't Mississippi have more lynchings than any other state?"
"Well, yes," Turnipseed conceded. "But that all happened so long ago. Why dwell on it now?"
To which Smith replied, "Well, it is a history book!"
Loewen and Sallis won the case and their book was thereafter taught in Mississippi schools. But had they won the war? As late as 2011, a conservative think tank evaluating U.S. history standards gave Mississippi an F, noting that save for a passing reference to Reconstruction in courses, “slavery is hardly mentioned, and its particular significance in Mississippi is ignored.” The average grade across all states was “barely a D,” which you know is bad because that’s the same grade I gave The Hobbit on Goodreads after I learned about its racist protagonist.
What gives? How did the history that students learn in so many states get so bad? How many kids have had to learn a racist, disempowering, mythological version of the past? Well, a lot of the answer has to do with a “historian” active in the 1910s. Tune in next time to learn more about that bit of Skipped History.
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That’s all for this week. Take a deep breath, look at some trees, and have a handmaiden-free weekend!