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Much More Than A Textbook

ISSUE:  Spring 1976
Mississippi: Conflict & Change. Edited by James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis. Pantheon. $10.00.

THERE is no better way I know to discuss the fate of Mississippi: Conflict & Change than to call upon a woman I came to know in 1964, when I worked in Mississippi as a member of the civil rights Summer Project. She was then 31, the mother of five children, a black woman born in Clarksdale, at the very heart of the Delta. She had never left the Delta when she spoke, during that summer, of her hopes—for her young children: “It would be nice if they got to see the world. Then they would learn the truth. Here, all they learn is that they’re niggers, and they haven’t got a chance in the world, except to serve the white man, be under him, do what he wants. Maybe if they went North they’d learn something else—that there’s a chance for them. But before they can go anyplace they have to stay here and go to school. They don’t get much out of school. Our people aren’t supposed to take their education too seriously. We’re supposed to do all the dirty work, and the white man is supposed to do the learning. I’ve seen the books they give our children in school. Our own people—Negro teachers—use those books. One of them was fired for telling the kids that the books are no good; they tell all about the white man, and they tell nothing about us, except that we’re here, and we’re no longer slaves. Well isn’t that nice! So long as our children don’t learn the truth about themselves in school, then they might as well be slaves!”

Only a slight overstatement, she knew. What she said the authors of Mississippi: Conflict & Change say right off—that what is read by school children has to do with, to use a biblical expression, “the powers and principalities”—who they are and what they want believed. Orwell put it another way: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” He would no doubt appreciate quite clearly, were he alive today, the reluctance shown by Mississippi’s educational authorities toward a textbook written explicitly for all the state’s children, black and white.

The authors are fighting in federal court to enable the young people of Mississippi to have access to a rather different interpretation of the state’s past than is now readily available. The point is not to take control of the past, so to speak; professors Loewen and Sallis, and their colleagues, don’t wish to be the sole interpreters of a particular state’s history. They simply want their book available, one of several granted entry to the Magnolia State’s classrooms. The state’s Textbook Board has said no, however. The officially sponsored textbook, John K. Bettersworth’s Mississippi: A History, and a revision of it titled Mississippi: Yesterday & Today are the only ones authorized for 9th grade readers. The author teaches at Mississippi State University and has not gone out of his way to offend the state’s segregationists. On the contrary, they have used his interpretation of the state’s history for years, much to the dismay and increasing outrage of black activist educators, not to mention ordinary parents, and certainly, in my experience, young men and women in the high schools. One daughter of the Clarksdale woman quoted above refused to pay much attention to the Bettersworth book, for reasons she was not loath to give: “If it hadn’t been for the civil rights people coming here, maybe I wouldn’t have worried; maybe I would have swallowed what those people want us to swallow. But why should we go to school and read books that tell us that racists like Ross Barnett and Bilbo were nice men and that the blacks and whites always got along real nice, except for the Yankees who came down here—and set us free, and tried to keep us free, but they stopped, and then the whites started lynching us and treating us like slaves again, with the segregation!

“I went to a Freedom School in the summer of 1964, and in 1965, and I haven’t forgot what I learned. Now I’m supposed to forget all that, and pay attention to the teacher, when she tells us that “this is right, what the book says. ” If I speak up, they’ll throw me out. If I keep quiet and repeat in class what the book says, I’ll feel like a white man’s nigger, that’s what. My mother says to remind myself what I really do know, and try to stay in school and on the teacher’s good side, because you have to have a high school diploma, if you’re going to get a good job later. But it’s no joke, sitting there and holding in your temper. We leave the building and we say to each other that it’s all a big lie, what they’re trying to stuff down us. My mother agrees. My father agrees. They say the world is full of lies, and that’s what you have to find out, when you’re growing up. I asked them why they don’t march into the high school and tell everyone that, but they tell me they’d be arrested, and I know they would. So, I guess you have to go along and keep your mouth shut.”

So it goes, political acquiescence, as it is learned—and learned as thoroughly as the various “facts” teachers want memorized. Meanwhile there are those in Mississippi who feel by no means ready to acquiesce. The authors, for instance: Professor Loewen, a sociologist at Tougaloo College, just outside Jackson, and Professor Sallis, the chairman of the Social Science Division of Millsaps College, in Jackson, have gone into court, joined by teachers and parents from various parts of the state, all intent on letting members of the Textbook Board know that they can no longer expect their decisions to go unchallenged. Not every state, of course, exerts such explicit political leverage over all its children. Every ninth grader in Mississippi has to study its history; and the textbook that forms the basis for such an educational effort is chosen by the Textbook Board, which meets once every six years and makes its decisions—and, of course, they are presumed to be final. If a particular school district chooses to use a teaxtbook other than the ones recommended, it may do so at its own expense. In one of our poorest states, that is no real option at all. The Textbook Board recently recommended only the Bettersworth book, and the result is that hundreds of thousands of children, half of them black, are continuing to learn a kind of history that is challenged strongly and persistently in Mississippi: Conflict & Change.

The book is unquestionably provocative; and one can understand how ordinary, middle-aged, white Mississippians, not especially frenzied racists, not prone to the Klan, even prone these days to acknowledging some past blind spots or worse with respect, to their racial views, would nevertheless be surprised indeed by the way their state’s history is presented. Even the relatively distant past is denied blandness; the forced removal of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians from land that would eventually make up the state of Mississippi is described in detail, and with measured but not complete sympathy for the Indians: “Americans resented the fact that relatively few Indians controlled much more land than they ever used for farming. White Mississippians were accustomed to the idea that one person owned a definite piece of land. They could not understand the Indians’ idea of the entire tribe owning all the land together. Whites considered the land almost vacant, unowned, and unused. They did not see—or if they did see, did not care—that land to the Choctaws and Chickasaws was more than just a farm. It was their homeland, the resting place of their ancestors, and the center of their religion. Finally, many Americans simply wanted the chance to grab part of the new land, resell it at a profit, and become rich.”

As the reader moves closer to the middle of the 19th century, the discussion of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction period get the same kind of blunt cultural and economic analysis, The authors are less interested in facts and figures, even in traditional narrative history, than in prompting their young readers to become critical, skeptical, and it can be said, class-conscious. That is to say, they are encouraged to ask of any writer, including those who wrote the textbook they are reading, questions many of us, older and (so we congratulate ourselves) wiser have learned emphatically not to ask. They are urged not to accept what they read “simply because it is written down.” They are encouraged to “sift through” what they read, in hopes of “separating truth from falsehood.” They are reminded to ask themselves about any author’s “social class,” about his or her race and sex, and yes, “ideology.” And the authors would be the first ones to acknowledge their own assumptions or ideological convictions. They are white Mississippians who feel strongly that the history of Mississippi, as written by Professor Bettersworth, and others, too (including those who write for college students), has seriously neglected the state’s black people—their contributions, their struggles and trials, their immense suffering—or misrepresented and distorted their historical experience. They write, I suppose it can be said, as populist revisionists with a strong sociological bias. They have this to say, for instance, about the state’s early years: “Mississippi . . .was controlled at first by nobles and wealthy businessmen in France who did not work with their hands. Later, wealthy planters, who again avoided manual labor, controlled the colony. The poor and working-class people who came to Mississippi had almost no voice in the government of the colony.”

When the reader comes to the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era that followed, he or she, black or white, may well be surprised. When I lived and worked in Mississippi, I was constantly told by black school teachers that the militarily imposed government which ran the state after 1865 was made up of ignorant, corrupt, unprincipled men, a mixture of Yankee opportunists and black incompetents, or worse; that is what the white and black children I talked with during the 1960’s believed, too—had been taught to believe by Professor Bettersworth, among others, who refers, in his book, to “political adventurers from the North” who came down “to make their fortunes off the prostrate state.” Then, prompted by one of those dead giveaway, ideological adverbs, we learn this from Bettersworth: “Fortunately time was on the side of the Mississippians; and by 1875 the old political order had returned. Once again Mississippi was for the Mississippians, and white and black could now set about the task of getting along together in the “new South” as they had in the “Old. “”

All very nice for the likes of Ross Barnett, who in 1962 (the year those words appeared in print as part of the high school education of a state’s children) told the Textbook Board that “there is nothing so important as the molding of the hearts and minds of our young people,” Readers of Mississippi: Conflict & Change get quite another view of the post-Civil War period. They are told that “while black voters had influence, they did not control the state government,” They are told that “many of the black leaders in Mississippi were educated,” and some were college graduates. They are told that the black leaders were, by and large, “honest,” and were supported not only by black but a significant number of white voters. They are told, finally, that those leaders “were reasonable in their use of political power and in their actions toward white Mississippians.” What did those leaders want? They sought “equal rights before the law.”

What is “truth”? Who is to be believed—Bettersworth or Loewen, Sallis, et al? The latter keep reminding their readers to ask those kinds of questions of themselves. They suggest all sorts of other books to read. They draw upon quotations, sometimes devastatingly, from sources by no stretch of the imagination friendly to their own point of view, such as the following exhortation from the Reconstruction Era Jackson Daily News: “We must keep the ex-slave in a position of inferiority. We must pass such laws as will make him feel his inferiority.” And, in a way, their own book’s purpose is also a matter of feel, of a book’s tone and, no doubt, the reader’s response—a sense of sadness that so many have been hurt, betrayed, excluded, for so long in the interests of (really) a handful. Moreover, a growing spirit of indignation comes across in the book, as the authors make quite clear that their own interpretations will offend the usual political pieties: “The conservatives enjoyed a reputation for “restoring” honesty and purity to government after Reconstruction. They did not deserve it. Every election was accompanied by fraud and violence.” And a little later on: “Tax policies favored the rich more than the poor. Care for the poor, the sick, and the blind was maintained at very low levels.”

Not the kind of remarks likely to appeal to the powers that be in Mississippi—or perhaps, those of influence in many other states. And when the young student conies nearer to his or her own time, the account becomes even more pointed, lucid, and sometimes, unnerving. Fannie Lou Hamer’s memory of her beating, at the hands of the State Highway Patrol’s lackeys, is included in a long and important (and moving and jarring) description of the civil rights struggle that took place in the 1960’s. This is no book in which (and is intended for no high school course in which) a lot of attention is given to the distant past (remote and hard to connect to present-day actuality) in contrast to the events of recent years, which are sometimes even refused the umbrella of “history,” and dismissed as “current events,” or “controversial matters,” best not discussed in a classroom. The young readers who become familiar with Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert Moses and Richard Wright are going to be stirred up all right, and maybe made rather suspicious of and angry at any number of people who consider things as they are just fine—threatened only by the outlandish rhetoric of one or another “radical fringe.”

One decade’s “fringe,” however, has a way of becoming another decade’s quite respectable (or at the very least, influential) element. When I lived in Biloxi, on the state’s Gulf Coast, the Mississippi NAACP was “a Communist front” for many so-called “moderates,” or an out-and-out band of “nigger-commies” for less polite segregationists. That was how it went in the late 1950’s, not quite two decades ago. Those of us who took part in the Mississippi Summer Project (1964) remember what that particular effort got called—often by working-class white people who themselves were not having the best time of it socially or economically. And, it turns out, educationally; because so often the white children of the state have been lied to, cheated of an honest searching inquiry into their own past, In any event, the Mississippi of the 1970’s is quite another place—not without vestiges and more of racial discrimination and hate, but more responsive to the state’s black people than any of us would have dreamed possible a short decade ago, as we sat in those Freedom Houses and contended with sheriffs who turned out to be, on some occasions, outright murderers.

Now a new textbook is contending for a place in the state’s high schools—one that is, actually, much more than a textbook; it is a vigorous attempt (done without condescension or vengefulness, but with considerable insistence) to encourage a new way of thinking in many thousands of young men and women. Beyond any doubt the book is disruptive; it will cause pain, sorrow, anger, and shame in those “minds and hearts” that the eminent Ross Barnett once anguished over. It may make countless youths cast a wary eye at his successors, still around. It will make for trouble—a less gullible generation to come, hence one not so readily conned by the old rhetoric, or an updated but not all that different bundle of slogans. As the authors of the book would be the first to point out, given the assumptions (and social and economic position) of those who are beholden to or serve on the Mississippi Textbook Board, there is every reason for that group to have said no, absolutely no, to this candid, undisguised, and unremitting assault upon their authority and interests. It remains to be seen how yet another chapter of “conflict” and possible “change” ends— no doubt one day to be chronicled in a revised version of Mississippi: Conflict &Change.


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