Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook

Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook

Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook

Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook

Synopsis

Just as Mississippi whites in the 1950s and 1960s had fought to maintain school segregation, they battled in the 1970s to control the school curriculum. Educators faced a crucial choice between continuing to teach a white supremacist view of history or offering students a more enlightened multiracial view of their state's past. In 1974, when Random House's Pantheon Books published Mississippi: Conflict and Change (written and edited by James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis), the defenders of the traditional interpretation struck back at the innovative textbook. Intolerant of its inclusion of African Americans, Native Americans, women, workers, and subjects like poverty, white terrorism, and corruption, the state textbook commission rejected the book, and its action prompted Loewen and Sallis to join others in a federal lawsuit ( Loewen v. Turnipseed) challenging the book ban.



Charles W. Eagles explores the story of the controversial ninth-grade history textbook and the court case that allowed its adoption with state funds. Mississippi: Conflict and Change and the struggle for its acceptance deepen our understanding both of civil rights activism in the movement's last days and of an early controversy in the culture wars that persist today.

Excerpt

In the early 1970s two young college professors in Jackson, Mississippi, led a team that wrote a boldly revisionist textbook that upset the staid field of Mississippi history and caused a major public controversy. James Loewen, a sociologist at Tougaloo College, and Charles Sallis, a historian at Millsaps College, worked with several of their students and colleagues to produce in 1974 a ninth-grade textbook, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. The title told their story. On many levels Loewen and Sallis argued that conflict produces change, and they embraced controversial subjects related to race and class, examined unpleasant subjects such as economic depressions and violence, and included subjects neglected by other books—blacks, women, workers, and the arts. By paying attention to dissent, the revisionist writers revealed past conflicts and highlighted lost possibilities for change. Loewen and Sallis believed that writing and teaching about the potential conflicts in Mississippi’s history would stimulate intellectual growth among ninth graders but also foster change in the state and among historians.

Loewen and Sallis presented a perspective that differed dramatically from previous textbooks. As Loewen would later demonstrate for American history in his best-selling Lies My Teacher Told Me, they wanted to correct the “lies”—the omissions, false impressions, distortions, errors—in Mississippi history textbooks. Marginalized women, workers, and blacks and other minorities learned little about their own histories from their Mississippi history textbooks. More important, they gained no knowledge about challenges to the established elite and about struggles against its control, whether by slaves or farmers in the nineteenth century or more recent civil rights demonstrators. The textbooks thereby denied many Mississippians access to their own traditions of resistance and protest, their own achievements and progress, and kept them ignorant of everything but the homogenized, continuous success story of the dominant class. At the behest of the white elite, the history books preserved ignorance of past inspirational heroes and, more generally, of lost possibilities and forgotten historical opportunities. The statesanctioned amnesia played a vital role in the perpetuation of white supremacy and racial discrimination.

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