Are We Too Polite to Tell Our Children the Truth?

It’s not a secret. The roots of Memorial Day lie twisted with America’s toughest problems of race and region. But my hunch is that very few Memorial Day speeches mentioned such things. In addition to the vexing problems of knowledge and politics that cause our continuing educational culture wars, I think we need to add one surprisingly boring cause.

Historian David Blight has argued convincingly that the first Memorial Day (Decoration Day back then) was part of a furious effort by African American Southerners to defend the memory of Union soldiers buried in the South. On May 1, 1865, the first Memorial Day celebration took place on Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina.

That first Memorial Day did not bring Americans together. It celebrated the victory of the Union. It celebrated the end of slavery. It used a display of African American military force to make the point to white Southerners that the old days were gone forever.

A dozen years later, of course, many of those white former Confederates had regained political power in the South. African American freedoms had been wrested away by vengeful white elites North and South. By the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Professor Blight tells us in Race & Reunion, North and South had come together to celebrate the heroics of white soldiers on both sides. Memorial Day had come to be a celebration of white unity, at the cost of African American rights.

What would YOU tell them?

What would YOU tell them?

Why don’t we tell any of that to our children? I think there are two obvious culprits and one surprisingly banal one.

Around these parts, local historians like to remind us that the official first Memorial Day took place in Waterloo, New York. In 1966, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson decreed that Waterloo was the birthplace of the tradition. That’s a comforting story everyone can get behind. And it points out the many reasons why we don’t tell ourselves the story of the Charleston Race Track.

First, lots of us just don’t know. We might not have read Professor Blight’s book. In all fairness, we might assume that the history we get in our newspapers and from our parents is the truth.

Second, there has been significant political activism to make sure we don’t know. As Professor Blight detailed, organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked hard to obscure the race-conscious history of Memorial Day. In textbooks and historical markers, in schools and in Memorial-Day speeches, activists such as Mildred Rutherford insisted that the memory of the Confederacy must be honored.

What not to know and how not to know it...

What not to know and how not to know it…

But above and beyond ignorance and activism, there is a far more basic reason why we don’t talk much about the still-festering racial issues at the real root of Memorial Day. For those of us interested in educational culture wars, we can see the same operation at work in questions about evolution and sex education in public schools as well.

As I argue in my new book about conservative school activism in the twentieth century, conservatives have often had a very easy time vetoing ideas or methods in public-school classrooms or textbooks. Why? Because they didn’t have to disprove the ideas, they only had to insist that such ideas were controversial.

Public schools are surprisingly similar to polite dinner parties. Not because everyone’s manners are at their best, but because any topic that is perceived as controversial is taboo. Teachers will avoid it; administrators will recoil from it.

We’ve seen this over and over throughout the twentieth century, in subject after subject.

Here in scenic Binghamton, New York, for example, in 1940, school Superintendent Daniel Kelly yanked a set of history textbooks from the district’s classrooms. Why? Not because he disliked them. He told a reporter, “Personally, it’s the kind of book I want my children to have. To say it is subversive is absurd.” However, he was willing to get rid of them in order to “stop the controversy” about them.

A few years later, in 1942, an enterprising group of academics tried to determine why so few teachers taught evolution. They mailed a survey to a representative group of teachers nationwide. Overall, they found that fewer than half of America’s biology teachers taught anything close to recognizable evolutionary science. Why not? In the words of one of their respondents, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.”

When it comes to Memorial Day, this polite impulse to avoid controversy must be part of our loud silence about the roots of the holiday. Who wants to be the boor at the cookout who turns a sentimental get-together into a racial confrontation? Who is willing to tell the gathered Boy Scouts and VFW members that their parade is a charade, since it has its roots in the reinstitution of American racial slavery? Who is willing to tell kids in class that their long weekend is really a reminder of America’s long and continuing race war?

Such things are simply not done.

In addition to the obvious culture-war culprits of knowledge and politics, we need to remember this obvious fact: Teaching the truth is rude.

Racism Doesn’t Pay

What would this look like in the United States?

A story in today’s New York Times describes the court case against Japan’s Zaitokukai, in which the far-right group had to pay a hefty fine for shouting its racist ideology at a Japanese school.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

The school apparently served young people of Korean ethnicity.  The far-right group protested outside the school, calling the children “spies and cockroaches.”

Is this sort of Asian race-baiting translatable?

In other words, what would this sort of racism look like in the United States?

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to see the woeful results of structural racism in America’s schools.  Schools are still often segregated by race.  Those with mostly African American students often lack the resources of schools for mostly white students.  And the educational legacy of white supremacy has often been part of America’s official educational policies, as historians such as David Blight have argued.

Even granting all that, however, I have a hard time imagining this sort of vicious race-baiting in any American city.  Maybe I’m naïve, but I can’t picture any group these days picketing a majority-African American school and shouting racial epithets.  Would the equivalent be something like the infamous Westboro Baptist Church rallies?  Even those, however, cling not to America’s racist past, but rather to an extremist religious vision.  I say again, I can’t imagine any large group shouting racist taunts at African American children.

Is this another case where my suburban liberal upbringing has left me painfully unaware of the realities of American schooling?

 

From the Archives: Conservatives, Historical Knowledge, and the Political Process

Guest Post by Kevin B. Johnson

How could American History bother conservatives?

Most people probably believe that sex education and evolutionary biology are the most contentious subjects taught in school.

But conservative activists have also targeted American history.  Why?  Because as historians such as Jon Zimmerman and David Blight have argued, America teeters on a culture-war divide in its understanding of its own history; a culture-war divide no less contentious than questions about sex and God.

Nowhere has this battle over the nation’s history been more bitter or grueling than in Mississippi.

A look at the record of conservative activism in the Magnolia State may shed some light on the continuing battle over the nature of history.  It also demonstrates the ways conservatives have scored their greatest successes.  In Mississippi, at least, conservatives managed to win by promoting one central idea: historical knowledge, properly understood, is static and unchanging.

As the Cold War split nations into the Free, Unfree, and Third Worlds, Americans began scrutinizing their communities in search of suspected communists and subversives. In Mississippi, these searches involved the content in state-approved social studies textbooks. Civic-patriotic organizations such as the American Legion, the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation led the charge in exposing objectionable historical knowledge presented in social studies texts.

The civic organizations were not alone in controlling textbook content. In the 1940s Mississippi began providing students with schoolbooks; lawmakers also set up the State Textbook Purchasing Board charged with governing the screening and selection of all texts. In the Cold War context, however, many civic organization leaders believed the state’s education professionals were ill-suited for this job and challenged their role in screening school materials.

A few key figures spearheaded the effort to guard historical knowledge. Mississippi State College education professor Cyril E. Cain, for example, found reading and “doing” history to be a mystical-spiritual experience. In 1949, Cain learned about the California SAR calling for removal from that state’s schools the Building America textbook series. America and its democratic system was not part of a process, the SAR argued. Rather, American democracy had been built and perfected in comparison to rival governments.

Through the Mississippi Patriotic Education Committee, Cain called upon other conservatives guard against the historical knowledge contained in schoolbooks. He wrote to the state regent of the Mississippi DAR—Edna Whitfield Alexander, asking for collaboration between their two organizations “for the common cause of defending America” from textbook authors who espoused “alien ideologies.”

For the next twenty years, Alexander became the South’s preeminent textbook activist. She developed her organizational skills through the Mississippi DAR, which held significant power in the 1950s and 1960s. Many DAR members’ husbands served in state government or were the state’s business leaders; the DAR owned numerous radio stations throughout Mississippi. A segregationist society like other civic clubs, its members naturally opposed perceived egalitarian messages in textbook treatments of history, civics, and economics. History was the DAR’s domain and it held what they believed was magnificent power to order present-day society.

Gaining the attention of Mississippi’s leaders, especially Mississippi House Speaker Walter Sillers, Jr, by 1958, Alexander and DAR activists officially recorded their objection to the content in dozens of state-approved books.

The following are just a few examples:

“Laconic treatment of the South…did not mention Fielding Wright as Vice-Presidential nominee of the States Right party…praises Federal aid to education…Booker T. Washington picture is much later than Thomas Jefferson [sic]” –review of United States History, American Book Company, 1955 reprint.

“This slanted-against-the-South book makes no mention of the fact that Russia offered to help the North [during the American Civil War]” –review of The Making of Modern America, Houghton-Mifflin, 1953.

“…records a good bit of history—some of which we are not too proud, and conspicuously omits some of which we are very proud like religious freedom!” –review of Your Country and the World, Ginn & Company, 1955.

“…advocates creation of a state of social equality…” –review of Economic Problems of Today, Lyons and Carnahan, 1955.

“Formerly history was largely concerned with kings, monarchies, laws, diplomacy, and wars…Today history deals with the entire life of a people. So now were are told that history must change along with this changing world and George Washington, Valley Forge, and the U.S. Constitution are no longer worthy of recognition to be ignored so far as our children’s history books are concerned.” – wrote a DAR reviewer of The Record of Mankind, published by D. C. Heath, 1952.

The DAR, in addition, opposed books citing renowned scholars such as Henry Steele Commager, Charles Beard, Allen Nevins, Gunnar Myrdal, Arthur Schlesinger, John Hersey, in addition to Mississippi writers like Hodding Carter, Ida B. Wells, and William Faulkner.

These comments sent to Sillers demonstrate the DAR’s view of History.  In the DAR vision, History should be dominated by pro-South, segregationist, and patriotic biases. The reason for teaching history in the Cold War context, the DAR and others agreed, was to instill in school children loyalty to state and country.

The DAR, under Alexander’s leadership, began a concerted lobbying effort. In 1959, Alexander informed the Mississippi Superintendent of Education and head of the State Textbook Purchasing Board, Jackson McWhirter “Jack” Tubb, that “youth must be taught Americanism in its purest form if this Republic is to survive.”

The American Legion and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation became important DAR allies. These civic clubs conducted official studies of Mississippi’s approved books and found that many “cater to alien ideologies contrary to the Mississippi way of life.” Boswell Stevens, a Legionnaire and president of the state’s Farm Bureau, believed social studies curricula should cultivate among students adoration of quintessential American values like Jeffersonian individualism, capitalism, and patriotism.

During state elections in 1959, the lobbyist coalition collaborated by staging exhibits of objectionable texts in the lobby of the Robert E. Lee hotel in Jackson. After Sillers intervened the DAR moved the exhibit to the lobby of the state capitol in time for the 1960 legislative session.

Lawmaker-members of American Legion and the Farm Bureau dominated the Legislature, passing amendments to state laws pertaining to textbook screening and adoption. The amendment gave the governor, recently elected Ross Barnett, appointment power over the state’s education professionals on these important textbook screening committees.

These conservative victories were not unopposed, however.  Newspapers editorials considered the DAR efforts as a “witch-hunt” and the state’s teachers association believed that textbook reviews were best left to education professionals.

But politics—in this case, staunchly conservative politics—trumped the claims of journalists and teachers.  Conservative activists also managed to stymie complaints from academic historians. In 1975, for example, James W. Loewen and several co-authors of the history text Mississippi: Conflict and Change had to file a federal lawsuit against Mississippi for adoption of their revolutionary new textbook. Loewen even commented at the time that most of the state-approved books were merely “didactic chronologies.”

Loewen’s lawsuit demonstrated the deeply entrenched nature of conservative visions of History in Mississippi.  For decades, conservative activists had succeeded in establishing state sanction for their vision of History: a static, unchanging field of facts, uniquely useful for promoting patriotism and instilling a love for traditional Americanism.

 

Kevin Boland Johnson is a doctoral candidate in American history at Mississippi State University and a dissertation fellow with the Spencer Foundation. His dissertation, “The Guardians of Historical Knowledge: Textbook Politics, Conservative Activism, and School Reform in Mississippi, 1928-1988,” explores numerous education reform efforts designed either to constrain or improve public school social studies curricula. You can reach Kevin at kbj41@msstate.edu.