A Short History of Fake History, and Why We Fight for the TruthRoundup
tags: civil rights, teaching history, Fake History, Freedom Schools
Historian Robert S. McElvaine teaches at Millsaps College. His latest book is The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn, from which portions of this essay are adapted.
It is often said that history is a story told by the winners. It might be more accurate to say that those who tell their story as history and get others to believe it thereby make themselves the winners. That happened on a grand scale in the United States from the late 19th century into the 1960s. That fact is essential for us to understand as right-wing extremists again seek to dictate that a fraudulent version of the American past be taught in schools.
Within a few decades after the Civil War, it came to be the losers' stories of "a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields," moonlight and magnolias, kindly masters and happy slaves, a glorious "Lost Cause" and a horrible period of "Black Reconstruction" that were widely accepted as accurate history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the nation was reunited on the basis of a tacit armistice in which the South accepted that the Union was indissoluble and white Americans outside the South accepted the Southern doctrine that people of African ancestry were innately inferior. That acceptance was facilitated by the popularity of the pseudoscience of social Darwinism and a fabricated story that Reconstruction had been a monstrous time of rule by ignorant black people, rather than the largely successful period of progressive and democratic reform that it actually was.
This inverted history had an enormous impact on the lives of at least three generations of Americans that, though diminished, continues down to the present. The most consequential telling of it is found in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, "Birth of a Nation," a landmark work both of cinema and white supremacist propaganda. The movie represents enslavers as benevolent caretakers for a lower life form. Enslaved people are shown singing and dancing during the "two-hour interval given for dinner." Reconstruction is painted as a time in which the "natural order" of white superiority was turned upside down. Griffith presents a frightening picture of "crazed negroes," with the necessary restraints of slavery removed, making "helpless whites" their "victims." One of the title cards in the silent movie depicts the restoring of white man's rule as a glorious event and describes it as "the former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright."
The view that Reconstruction was a period of terrifying "black domination," and Restoration the rightful reaffirmation of the United States as "a white man's country," was prevalent throughout the nation from the 1890s into the early 1960s. Pushed by followers of early 20th-century Columbia University historian William Dunning, this interpretation was routinely taught in schools. It was also reflected in popular culture, notably in Margaret Mitchell's hugely successful 1936 novel "Gone With the Wind" and its 1939 film adaptation.
The 1950s — the time when Republicans today say America was "great" — lasted well into the early 1960s. Though it is often referred to as an "age of innocence," in fact it was an age of ignorance of guilt. Restoring that ignorance is a major component of the authoritarians' plan to "Take America Back."
In 1964, songwriter and folk singer Tom Paxton recorded "What Did You Learn in School Today?" It is a biting satirical attack on the misinformation that was still being taught about the American past. The son in the song responds to his father's question by saying he learned that everyone in the United States is free, our country is always right and just, the police are always our friends, the wars America fights are always good and so on. Paxton's lyrics again seem tailor-made for the "guilt-free" mythology that Republicans today are seeking to impose on school curricula while calling it history.