The Story of a 1970s Mississippi Textbook that Changed how Students Learned about their PastHistorians in the News
tags: racism, textbooks, Mississippi, teaching history
This story is part of The Confederate Reckoning, a collaborative project of USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South to critically examine the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today.
Before 1980, students were often taught a whitewashed narrative of the state’s violent past, one that diminished Black people’s suffering and fostered prejudice. After 1980 came a version of Mississippi history in textbooks that looked a little more like the history itself: complicated, uncomfortable, sometimes ugly.
What changed? Ninth graders finally began to get their hands on a textbook called “Mississippi: Conflict and Change.” The book, which ultimately won a nonfiction writing award and garnered positive reviews from major news outlets, almost wasn’t released to school districts at all. Its authors [James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis] fought for years for its adoption, first against Mississippi’s textbook review committee and then in federal court.
The book didn’t suddenly end Mississippi’s history teaching shortcomings, and the fight to give students a more full view of the past still continues today, said Stephanie R. Rolph, a history professor at Millsaps College.
“Even some of the most recent textbooks on Mississippi history, while they're improvements on what was available in the 1970s, are still not fully diving into the history of slavery in the state, the level of violence that accompanied it, and the aftermath of it,” Rolph said.
But “Conflict and Change” served as a bellwether, she said, showing other Mississippi scholars that they, too, could challenge the status quo. The story behind the textbook’s eventual adoption was turned into its own 2017 book, “Civil Rights Culture Wars,” by Ole Miss historian Charles Eagles.
“Mississippi women, workers, and blacks and other minorities learned little about their own histories from their Mississippi history textbooks,” Eagles wrote in his first chapter, describing the era before “Conflict and Change” was released. This “state-sanctioned amnesia,” he wrote, “played a vital role in the perpetuation of white supremacy and racial discrimination.”
Just as Mississippi’s leaders refused to integrate schools for 16 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, they also refused to sign off on a textbook that offered a more comprehensive perspective of the state’s history around slavery and race.
In 1960, the Mississippi Legislature gave Gov. Ross Barnett, a segregationist, full control over picking what textbooks schools were allowed to use. Barnett chose a state history book written by John Bettersworth, an author who included “pro-white, anti-integrationist narratives” and “seemed stuck in the same Old South and Lost Cause mentality” of the state history authors that came before him, according to a 2010 report by the historian Rebecca Davis.
By 1970, a state textbook review committee appointed by top leaders had begun choosing what schools could buy with state money. But that didn’t immediately improve which types of history books were being adopted. “Mississippi textbook authors continued writing ‘whites only’ history well into the 1970s and some into the 1980s,” Davis wrote.