The Last Innocents: The Civil Rights Movement and the Teaching of High School History
By James W. Loewen
Vol. 17, No. 2, 1995 pp. 14-17
In 1974 Pantheon published the first revisionist textbook of state history in the United States, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, edited by Charles Sallis and myself. The Southern Regional Council awarded the book the 1976 Lillian Smith Award for nonfiction, but the State of Mississippi rejected it for use as a public school text. This led to the lawsuit Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed, et al., which we finally won in 1980. As a result, Mississippi was ordered to adopt our textbook for six years beginning in 1980.
Rewriting Mississippi history helped me see the problems in American history, for I came to realize, especially after moving to Vermont, that in history teaching as well as other areas, Mississippi in the 1960s merely exaggerated tendencies that unfortunately permeated the United States. Gradually I became aware that American history textbooks simply do not tell high school students what historians tell each other in their professional monographs and articles. For my most recent book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, I selected twelve commonly used high school history textbooks and spent much of ten years surveying what they tell students about our past.1
The distortions begin with what textbooks say about the Indians, continue as authors retell the familiar (though largely false) legends about Columbus and the Pilgrims, carry on through astonishing omissions about historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, and Woodrow Wilson, and even affect what history books predict for the future. Let me illustrate, however, with a topic which most readers of Southern Changes know intimately: the story of the Southern civil rights movement and its complex relationship with the federal government.
Between 1960 and 1968, the civil rights movement repeatedly appealed to the federal government for protection and enforcement of federal law, but governmental response was woefully inadequate, especially during the Kennedy administration. In Mississippi, movement offices displayed this bitter rejoinder:
There’s a street in Itta Bena called Freedom. There’s a town in Mississippi called Liberty. There’s a department in Washington called Justice.
From their start investigating alleged Communists during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, J. Edgar Hoover and the agency that became the Federal Bureau of Investigation had a long history of antagonism toward African Americans. Although the last four years of that administration saw more anti-black race riots than any other time in our history, agents focused on gathering intelligence on African Americans, not on white Americans who were violating blacks’ civil rights. Hoover explained the Washington, D.C., anti-black race riot of 1919 as due to “the numerous assaults committed by Negroes upon white women.”
In the beginning the FBI had a few black agents, but by the early 1960s the Bureau had none, although Hoover tried to claim it did by counting his chauffeurs.2 Many FBI agents in the South were white Southerners who cared what their white Southern neighbors thought of them and were themselves white supremacists.
Even in the 1960s, Hoover still thought the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a terrible error. Beginning in 1963, Hoover decided to try to destroy Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. With the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he tapped the telephones of King’s associates, bugged King’s hotel rooms, and made tape recordings of his conversations with and about women. The FBI then passed on the lurid details, including photographs, transcripts, and tapes, to Senator Strom Thurmond and other white supremacists, reporters, foundation administrators, and of course the president. In 1964, a high FBI administrator sent a tape recording of King having sex, along with an anonymous note suggesting that King kill himself, to the office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When King went to Europe to claim the Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI tried to sabotage receptions in his honor. Hoover called the civil rights leader “the most notorious liar in the country” and tried to prove that SCLC was infested with Communists. Hoover
also passed along disinformation about the Mississippi Summer Project, organizations such as CORE and SNCC, and other civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson. At the same time, the FBI refused to pass on to King information about death threats made against him and repeatedly claimed that protecting civil rights workers from violence was not its job.
In 1962, SNCC sued Robert Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover to force them to protect civil rights demonstrations. Desperate for ways to force the United States to care about enforcing the law in the Deep South, Mississippi civil rights workers Amzie Moore and Robert Moses then hit upon the 1964 “Freedom Summer” idea. The FBI finally opened an office in Jackson after the national outcry prompted by the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi. But later that summer, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention at Atlantic City, agents tapped the phones of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Martin Luther King, at the request of President Johnson.
After Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, students from a nearby black college demonstrated against an Orangeburg, South Carolina, bowling alley which refused to obey the law. State troopers fired on the demonstrators, killing three and wounding twenty-eight–many in the soles of their feet as they threw themselves on the ground to avoid the gunfire. The FBI responded not by helping to identify which officers fired in what became known as “the Orangeburg Massacre,” but by falsifying information about the students to help the troopers with their defense.
Federal harassment of black organizations was not limited to Dixie. In California, Chicago, and elsewhere, the Bureau tried to eliminate the breakfast programs of the Black Panther organization, spread false rumors about venereal disease to break up Panther marriages, helped escalate conflict between other black groups and the Panthers, and helped Chicago police raid the apartment of Panther leader Fred Hampton and kill him in bed in 1969. The FBI warned black leader Stokely Carmichael’s mother of a fictitious plot to murder him, prompting Carmichael to flee the United States.
The FBI also investigated pro-black faculty members at colleges across America. The institution at which I taught, Tougaloo College in Mississippi, was a special target: at one point agents in Jackson even proposed to “neutralize” the entire college, because among other things its students had sponsored “out-of-state militant Negro speakers, voter-registration drives, and African cultural seminars and lectures… [and] condemned various publicized injustices to the civil rights of Negroes in Mississippi.” Obviously high crimes and misdemeanors!
The FBI’s conduct and the federal leadership that tolerated and sometimes requested it are part of the legacy of the 1960s, alongside such positive achievements as the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. As historian Kenneth O’Reilly put it, “when the FBI stood against black people, so did the government.”
How do American high school history textbooks treat this legacy?
First, they leave out everything bad the government ever did, as if it never happened. Textbooks do not even want to say anything bad about state governments: ten textbooks include part of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but nine of them censor his negative comments about the governments of Alabama and Mississippi.
Not only do high school text books fail to blame the federal government for its opposition to the civil rights movement, many actually credit the government, almost single-handedly, for the advances made during the period. In so doing, textbooks follow what we might call the Hollywood approach to civil rights. Hollywood’s main feature film on the movement, you may remember, was Alan Parker’s notorious Mississippi Burning. In that movie, the three civil rights workers get killed in the first five minutes; for the rest of its two hours the movie portrays not a single civil rights worker or black Mississippian over the age of twelve with whom the viewer could possibly identify. Instead, Parker concocts two fictional white FBI agents who play out the hoary “good cop/bad cop” formula and in the process, double-handedly solve the murders. In reality, everyone in east Mississippi knew for weeks who did it. Supporters of the civil rights movement, including Michael Schwerner’s widow, Rita, and every white northern friend
the movement could muster pressured Congress and the federal executive to force the FBI to open a Mississippi office and make bringing the murderers to justice a priority.3 No innovative police work was involved; the FBI finally apprehended the conspirators after giving one of them $30,000 to testify against the others.
American high school history textbooks offer a Parker-like analysis of the entire civil rights movement. Like the arrests of the Klansmen in Mississippi Burning, advances in civil rights simply result from good government. Federal initiative in itself “explains” milestones like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. John F. Kennedy proposed them, Lyndon Baines Johnson passed them through Congress, and thus we have them today. Or, in the immortal passive voice of one textbook,American History, “Another civil rights measure, the Voting Rights Act, was passed.” Several textbooks even reverse the time order, putting the bills first, the civil rights movement later.4
Much of the civil rights movement consisted of various tactics to force the federal government to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments and other civil rights laws. Omitting this dynamic not only makes it impossible for students to see how citizens can get the government to act, but also makes for inaccurate history. Instead, textbooks tell us about the “outstanding leadership” of John F. Kennedy on civil rights. Challenge of Freedom provides a typical treatment:
President Kennedy and his administration respondedreponded [sic] to the call for racial equality. In June1963 the President asked for congressional action on far-reaching equal rights laws. Following the President’s example, thousands of Americans became involved in the equal rights movement as well. In August 1963 more than 200,000 people took part in a march in Washington, D. C. (611-13)
This account reverses leader and led. In reality, JFK first tried to stop the march, then sent his vice-president to Norway to keep him away from it, because Kennedy felt Lyndon Johnson was too pro-civil rights. Even Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a Kennedy partisan, notes dryly in his assessment of the administration that “the best spirit of Kennedy was largely absent from the racial deliberations of his presidency.”
Similarly, when describing the attack on segregation that culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Triumph of the American Nation makes no mention that African Americans were the plaintiffs and attorneys in Brown v. Board of Education or that prior cases also brought by the NAACP prepared the way. Today many black students think desegregation was something the federal government forced on the black community. They have no idea it was something the black community forced on the federal government.5 No wonder some young African Americans now view Brown as part of a government conspiracy to destroy black institutions! Meanwhile, young white Americans can reasonably infer that the federal government has been nice enough to blacks, so why does it need to do more?
However, it is boring to read about all the good things the government did on its own. Moreover, revelation after revelation of misconduct and deceit in the federal executive branch have shattered the trust of the American people, including high school students. Since they are unwilling to say bad things about the government, high school textbook authors come across as the last innocents left in America. When students encounter so little material in school about the bad things the government has done, especially when parents and the daily newspaper tell a different story, this “makes all education suspect,” according to education researcher Donald Barr.
Nor can the servile approach of textbook authors to the government teach students to be effective citizens. Not one of the history books I surveyed educates students about the dynamics that should characterize the interrelationship between the people and their government in a democracy.6 Consequently none of the books tells how citizens can, and in fact have, forced the government to respond to them. According to Patrick Ferguson, many teachers only reinforce this passive image: his study of twelve randomly selected teachers of twelfth-grade American government courses found that about the only way they suggested that individuals could influence local or national governments was through voting.
By downplaying covert and illegal acts by the government, textbook authors narcotize students from thinking about such issues as the increasing dominance of the executive branch or the growth of the CIA, National Security Council, and other covert agencies into what some analysts call a fourth branch of government. By taking the government’s side, they encourage students to conclude that criticism is incompatible with citizenship. And by presenting government actions in a vacuum, textbooks mystify the complex interrelationship between the people and their leaders. All of this encourages students to throw up their hands in the belief that the government determines everything anyway, so why bother, especially if its actions are usually so benign. In this way, our American history textbooks minimize the potential power of the people and, despite their best patriotic efforts, take a stance that is overtly anti-democratic.
I hope to have persuaded you that the way history textbooks present the relationship between the civil rights movement and the government is incredibly incomplete and inaccurate, and that these errors have consequences for our society today. The same holds for how history textbooks treat Helen Keller, Woodrow Wilson, Christopher Columbus, the War of 1812, the My Lai massacre, and even the Gettysburg Address, as other chapters of Lies My Teacher Told Me demonstrate. Hopefully I have also persuaded you to put Lies My teacher Told Me in the hands of every teacher of American history in the South, so that knowledge of our past can become a tool for self-understanding and social change, rather than another source of the social problems facing our country.
Portions of this essay appear in slightly different form inLies My Teacher Told Me, and are reprinted here by permission of the author.
The twelve American history textbooks surveyed in Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen:
Social Science Staff of the Educational Research Council of America, The American Adventure (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1975).
Ira Peck, Steven Jantzen, and Daniel Rosen, American Adventures (Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn, 1987)
John A. Garraty with Aaron signer and Michael Gallagher, American History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982).
Thomas A Bailey and David M. Kennedy, The American Pageant (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1991)
Robert Green, Laura L. Becker, and Robert E. Coviello, The American Tradition (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1984).
Nancy Bauer, The American Way (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1979).
Robert Sobel, Roger LaRaus, Linda Ann De Leon, and Harry P. Morris, The Challenge of Freedom (Mission Hills, Calif.: Glencoe, 1990).
Allen Kownslar and Donald B. Frizzle, Discovering American History (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1974).
Carol Berkin and Leonard Wood, Land of Promise (Glenview, Ill: Scott, Foresman, 1983)
Philip Roden, Robynn Greer, Bruce Kraig, and Betty Bivins, Life and Liberty (Glenview, Ill: Scott, Foresman, 1984).
Paul Lewis Todd and Merle Curti, Triumph of the American Nation (Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).
James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, The United States–A History of the Republic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981).
James W. Loewen is a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and an expert in voting rights issues. His previous books include the Smith Award-winning Mississippi: Conflict and Change (with co-author Charles Sallis) and The Truth About Columbus, a “subversively true” poster book which also resulted from his research on American history textbooks.
1. Lies My Teacher Told Me (The New Press, 1995, 384 pages)lists and describes these textbooks.
2. Statements of fact are footnoted in Lies My Teacher Told Me. This paragraph, for example, relies on Kenneth O’Reilly, “Racial Matters” and Charles Ameringer, U.S. Foreign Intelligence.
3. Meanwhile, Hoover tapped Schwerner’s father’s telephone to see if he might be a communist!
4. One textbook, The United States–A History of the Republic, does draw a connection between the Selma march and the Voting Rights Act: “President Johnson pressed for further civil rights legislation after the Reverend James J. Reeb, a black civil rights worker, was shot during a voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama.” Reeb was a white Unitarian minister who had come to Selma to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march. Later A History of the Republic offers one of the fuller accounts of the civil rights movement, but other that this half sentence about Reeb, places it afterthe legislation it influenced.
5. Jury selection in the 1994 retrial of Byron de la Beckwith for his 1963 murder of Medgar Evers revealed that young black Mississippians “Know little of Evers’ struggle for racial equality”.
6. In two vignette-chapters on the Montgomery movement and Martin Luther King, American Adventurestell how the civil rights movement pressured Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but in its vignette-chapter on Lyndon Johnson,Adventures gives the credit to LBJ and Robert Kennedy.