Where It All Began

A friend recently recommended Robert P. Jones’ most recent book, “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future,” and as I’ve gotten through it, I’ve become aware of just how misleading my history classes were and why White Christian Nationalists are so determined to eliminate accurate history (which they inaccurately call CRT) from the nation’s classrooms.

Jones is an ordained pastor and the director of the Public Religion Research Institute. (He also wrote “The End of White Christian America,” exploring the political and social responses by White Christians to their dwindling majority.) In this book, he has probed the Christian roots of White supremacy, which–he persuasively argues–goes back much further than American slavery and is responsible for the horrific treatment of both Native Americans and Blacks.

Jones locates the institutional source of White supremacy in a document I’d never previously heard of: The Doctrine of Discovery, issued as a Papal Bull in 1493–the year after Columbus’ “discovery” of America.

As one academic source describes it:

The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.

That document, which essentially gave European Christians carte blanche to invade and dispossess any non-Christian populations that might be inconveniently in possession of desirable territory, reflected a belief in European (White) Christian supremacy that is still potent.

Jones provides example after example of the U.S. government cheating Native Americans, breaching treaties, and decimating tribes. I thought back to my history classes. Not once in high school or college did that instruction include a description of the ways in which early Americans mistreated Native Americans. Not once was there even a mention of the Trail of Tears, arguably the most famous of these reprehensible events. I only learned about the Trail of Tears as an adult visiting a Cherokee museum.

The book moves between the mistreatment of Native Americans and the history of slavery and Jim Crow–and the way we are still grappling with the remnants and persistence of both– and he provides important background and context for the murder of Emmet Till, the Tulsa massacre and other shameful episodes in our national life. In places, it has been very hard to read; I’ve had to take breaks from time to time as I considered, among other things, what sort of people would actually torture and kill a young teenager over the perceived “assault” of a wolf whistle, and what sorts of government officials intentionally refuse to honor treaties and routinely betray solemn promises.

Thanks to this book, I have a deeper appreciation for the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” because for a considerable part of our nation’s history, in many parts of the country, those lives didn’t matter to significant percentages of the White majority. (And let’s be honest; those lives still don’t matter to more Americans than I care to think about…)

It is coincidental that I am reading about this history during Black History month, but that coincidence emphasizes–at least, to me– the importance of teaching accurate, inclusive history. It has also given me a fuller understanding of the resistance; those who continue to harbor racial animus and view inclusion as a threat are frantic at the prospect of students abandoning a whitewashed (pun intended) version of the American nation as the “City on the Hill,” a virtuous product of White Christianity.

If the Germans can confront the Holocaust, Americans can confront our genocidal treatment of Native Americans and our vicious suppression of Black Americans. In fact, as Jones argues, we absolutely must. The only way to ensure that the past is truly past is to encounter and admit to it, warts and all.

Acknowledging the past and moving to remediate it is, in the end, our only “Path to a Shared American Future.”


Evidently, Not All History Is Written By The Victors…

A recent article from the Washington Post challenged my belief in the old adage that history is written by the victors. (It would also appear that Faux News didn’t invent propaganda. Who knew?) Apparently, successfully resisting Reconstruction wasn’t the only tactic employed by pro-slavery Southerners. 

They were also able to suppress “inconvenient” history. 

As Howell Raines, the author of the essay, noted, “Until a few years ago, I was among the thousands of Southerners who never knew they had kin buried under Union Army headstones.” It appears that a regiment of 2,066 fighters and spies who came from the mountain South were chosen by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as his personal escort on the March to the Sea. Raines wondered how their history got erased, and found that “the explanation reaches back to Columbia University, whose pro-Confederate Dunning School of Reconstruction History at the start of the 20th century spread a false narrative of Lost Cause heroism and suffering among aristocratic plantation owners.”

As a 10-year-old I stood in the presence of Marie Bankhead Owen, who showed me and my all-White elementary-school classmates the bullet holes in Confederate battle flags carried by “our boys.” She and her husband, Thomas McAdory Owen, reigned from 1901 to 1955 as directors of the archives in a monolithic alabaster building across from the Alabama State Capitol. They made the decision not to collect the service records of an estimated 3,000 White Alabamians who enlisted in the Union Army after it occupied Huntsville, Ala., in 1862. The early loss of this crucial Tennessee River town was a stab to the heart from which the Confederacy never recovered. Neither did the writing of accurate history in Alabama.

The Owens were not alone in what was a national academic movement to play down the sins of enslavers. In the files in Montgomery, I found the century-old correspondence between Thomas Owen and Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning about their mission to give a pro-Southern slant to the American Historical Association. 

The essay documents the effort to sanitize the “War Between the States,” by claiming that  Southerners had been solidly behind the Confederacy; that the war had been fought about “states’ rights,” not slavery; and–most pernicious of all–that African Americans were “scientifically proven to be a servile race” that brought down Reconstruction because they were incapable of governing.

The fact that few Americans have ever heard of the 1st Alabama Cavalry and the defiant anti-secession activist who led to its founding, Charles Christopher Sheats, documents how such historiographic trickery produced what the Mellon Foundation calls “a woefully incomplete story” of the American past. The foundation’s Monuments Program is spending $500 million to erect accurate memorials to political dissidents, women and minorities who are underrepresented in many best-selling history books.

Recent research has traced the ways in which an “alternate” Southern history became the predominant story of the Civil War.

Dunning was the son of a wealthy New Jersey industrialist who taught him that Southern plantation masters were unfairly punished during Reconstruction. The younger Dunning installed a white-supremacist curriculum at Columbia and, after 1900, started dispatching his doctoral students to set up pro-Confederate history departments at Southern universities. The most influential of these was Walter Lynwood Fleming, whose students at Vanderbilt University produced “I’ll Take My Stand,” a celebration of plantation culture written by 12 brilliant conservative “Agrarian” writers including Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and Andrew Nelson Lytle…Fleming, who was born on an Alabama plantation, reigned as the director of graduate education at Vanderbilt and peopled Southern history departments with PhDs schooled in the pro-Confederate views he learned from Dunning at Columbia.

It turns out that there were some 100,000 Union volunteers from the South. They were, Howell tells us, “Jacksonian Democrats who hewed to Old Hickory’s 1830 dictum that the Union must be preserved.” Lost Cause historians who had been schooled by Dunning and Fleming glossed over the fact that “White volunteers from the Confederate states made up almost 5 percent of Lincoln’s army.”

Howell concludes by considering how this history was lost.

How then did the Civil War become the only conflict in which, as filmmaker Ken Burns told me, the losers got to write the history, erecting statues of Johnny Reb outside seemingly every courthouse in Alabama? Long story short, after the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, plantation oligarchs regained control of Southern legislatures and state universities started churning out history books that ignored Black people and poor Whites. When national historians set about writing widescreen histories of the war, they relied on these tainted histories.

The essay is lengthy, and filled with fascinating details documenting both accurate history and the dishonest machinations of those whose devotion to Confederate ideology suppressed it.

It made me wonder how often losers have become victors by simply rewriting history…


Shades Of Texas

Back before the Internet and e-books, when school textbooks were hard-back volumes printed by educational publishers, Texas had a wildly disproportionate influence on the lessons those books conveyed. Even then, Texas was an anti-intellectual wasteland, but because of its size–and the need to standardize publication of schoolbooks nationally– it had an outsized influence on what went into the nation’s textbooks. (I often think we should give Texas back to Mexico, but they probably wouldn’t take it…)

Today, of course, school districts have access to a wider variety of educational resources, so the minority of Americans who are firmly opposed to giving children an accurate understanding of history or science have pursed a different tactic: educational vouchers. Vouchers–as readers of this blog are aware–allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private–almost always religious–schools, a large number of which use textbooks that are even less accurate than those once influenced by Texas.

Time Magazine recently reported on the most widely-used of those “textbooks.”

The report began by noting that the singer-songwriter who wrote the controversial “Try that in a small town” shouldn’t have been so surprised by the outcry the song triggered. After all, he’d attended a religious school that used

textbooks produced by Abeka, a publishing company that has long been part of the effort among conservative institutions to teach an airbrushed version of history—one that presents a narrow vision of a heroic, Christian, capitalist America. For the most part, these books have been limited to private schools and homeschools, though the founders of these networks always hoped to influence public life…

Abeka’s roots go back to the 1925 Scopes Trial, which pitted evolutionary science and expert academic knowledge against local control and religious dogma. After the trial, which produced reams of journalistic mockery of conservative religion, prominent fundamentalists like Bob Jones Sr. decided that America needed a new kind of educational institution, one free from the influence of mainstream academic expertise. He founded Bob Jones College in Florida (now Bob Jones University in South Carolina) to provide white conservative Christians with a “fighting base.”

Eventually, even Bob Jones University was deemed too “progressive” by religious fanatics, and a network of white-dominated private religious schools grew rapidly.

These schools promised to maintain prayer and traditional teaching. Most importantly, they promised a refuge from court-ordered desegregation efforts. These schools needed textbooks that would teach the lessons that parents who opposed such measures wanted their children to learn.

In response, Abeka expanded its publishing efforts. The company eventually published original textbooks in every subject, for every grade. The goal was to provide an alternative kind of curriculum, one that—in the words of one Abeka leader in 1979—would teach students to cherish the Bible, “master the three R’s,” maintain a healthy “respect for authority,” and develop “pride in America.”

As the Time article notes, Abeka textbooks teach a history that is “dramatically distinct from mainstream books.”  They omit the violence that doomed Reconstruction, instead explaining that it failed because many formerly enslaved people were “not prepared for political responsibility.” “The book does briefly note that “some Southern whites used illegal methods” and “terror tactics,” including forming the KKK. Yet, that mention of white terrorism is buried within an overall message of white victimhood.”

In 2019, Abeka’s texts were used by a majority of America’s 1,689,726 homeschooled students plus nearly three-quarters of a million students in conservative Christian private schools. It isn’t just Abeka–Hillsdale College and PragerU, among others, produce wildly slanted versions of America’s history, and have been making inroads in even public schools in Red States.

And it isn’t just history: textbook publishers serving these Christian voucher schools also produce anti-Darwin, anti-evolution. “science” books.

In 2010, NBC reported that Christian-based materials that omit any mention of evolution had come to dominate the home-school education market; that year, that market was more than 1.5 million students. As the article notes, most home-school parents want a “Bible-based version of the Earth’s creation.”

“Those who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God will find many points in this book puzzling,” says the introduction to “Biology: Third Edition” from Bob Jones University Press. “This book was not written for them.”

The textbook delivers a religious ultimatum to young readers and parents, warning in its “History of Life” chapter that a “Christian worldview … is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is.”

That is the worldview being supported by Hoosier tax dollars that have been siphoned off and sent to “voucher” schools by Indiana’s legislators.

And we wonder why educated people leave Indiana…


Florida Proves My Point

I have repeatedly communicated my conviction that racism is the root cause of America’s polarization. That root cause may be exacerbated by the other issues we address, but eventually, the racist roots become too obvious to ignore.

That the Republican war on “woke” is a barely-veiled attack on racial and gender equity has been fairly obvious for some time. In Ron DeSantis’ Florida, the determination to rewrite history and privilege White Supremacy has become impossible to ignore.

As the irreplaceable Heather Cox Richardson has explained,

The Florida Board of Education approved new state social studies standards on Wednesday, including standards for African American history, civics and government, American history, and economics. Critics immediately called out the middle school instruction in African American history that includes “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” (p. 6). They noted that describing enslavement as offering personal benefits to enslaved people is outrageous.

But that specific piece of instruction in the 216-page document is only a part of a much larger political project. 

Taken as a whole, the Florida social studies curriculum describes a world in which the white male Founders of the United States embraced ideals of liberty and equality—ideals it falsely attributes primarily to Christianity rather than the Enlightenment—and indicates the country’s leaders never faltered from those ideals. Students will, the guidelines say, learn “how the principles contained in foundational documents contributed to the expansion of civil rights and liberties over time” (p. 148) and “analyze how liberty and economic freedom generate broad-based opportunity and prosperity in the United States” (p. 154).

The new guidelines emphasize that slavery was common around the globe. Worse, “they credit white abolitionists in the United States with ending it (although in reality the U.S. was actually a late holdout).” They teach that slavery in the U.S. was really an outgrowth of  “Afro-Eurasian trade routes” and that the practice “was utilized in Asian, European, and African cultures,” –with emphasis on  “systematic slave trading in Africa.”

Then the students move on to compare “indentured servants of European and African extraction” (p. 70) before learning about overwhelmingly white abolitionist movements to end the system.

In this account, once slavery arrived in the U.S., it was much like any other kind of service work: slaves performed “various duties and trades…(agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” (p. 6) (This is where the sentence about personal benefit comes in.) And in the end, it was white reformers who ended it.

Richardson notes that Florida’s Rightwing curriculum presents human enslavement as just one type of labor system, “a system that does not, in this telling, involve racism or violence.”

Indeed, racism is presented only as “the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on individual freedoms.” This is the language of right-wing protesters who say acknowledging white violence against others hurts their children, and racial violence is presented here as coming from both Black and white Americans, a trope straight out of accounts of white supremacists during Reconstruction (p. 17). To the degree Black Americans faced racial restrictions in that era, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans did, too (pp. 117–118).

Those who constructed this curriculum evidently had a problem fitting the violence of Reconstruction into their whitewashed version of U.S. history so, according to Richardson, they didn’t bother. They simply included a single entry in which an instructor is told to “Explain and evaluate the policies, practices, and consequences of Reconstruction (presidential and congressional reconstruction, Johnson’s impeachment, Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, opposition of Southern whites to Reconstruction, accomplishments and failures of Radical Reconstruction, presidential election of 1876, end of Reconstruction, rise of Jim Crow laws, rise of Ku Klux Klan)” (p. 104). 

There’s more, and you really need to click through and read the post in its entirety, but Richardson sums up this educational travesty with a powerful indictment:

All in all, racism didn’t matter to U.S. history, apparently, because “different groups of people ([for example] African Americans, immigrants, Native Americans, women) had their civil rights expanded through legislative action…executive action…and the courts.” 

The use of passive voice in that passage identifies how the standards replace our dynamic and powerful history with political fantasy. In this telling, centuries of civil rights demands and ceaseless activism of committed people disappear. Marginalized Americans did not work to expand their own rights; those rights “were expanded.” The actors, presumably the white men who changed oppressive laws, are offstage. 

And that is the fundamental story of this curriculum: nonwhite Americans and women “contribute” to a country established and controlled by white men, but they do not shape it themselves. 

That is the “fundamental story” that MAGA folks want American children to believe. Anything else is “CRT.”


Originalism And The Second Founding

It’s interesting (okay, infuriating) to note the highly selective “originalism” practiced by  retrograde justices on the Supreme Court. In their professed zeal to mind-meld with the nation’s earliest Founders, they entirely ignore what scholars have called “the Second Founding”–the post-Civil War passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

Ratified in the years immediately following the Civil War, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—together known as the Reconstruction Amendments—abolished slavery, safeguarded a set of basic national liberties, and expanded the right to vote.

Both Justice Ketanji Jackson and Heather Cox Richardson have recently reminded us of that “original” history.

President Andrew Johnson, an unrepentant racist, vetoed the 1866 civil rights bill, claiming–among other things– that it wasn’t race neutral.  It wasn’t–and it wasn’t intended to be. Congress passed it over his veto– and based the Fourteenth Amendment on it.

 The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments explicitly give the federal government power to protect individual rights in the states. Scholars like Akhil Reed Amar, who teaches Constitutional Law at Yale, call their passage the “second founding.”

Amar explains that the Reconstruction Amendments shift emphasis somewhat from Madison’s first concern– protecting people from unrepresentative government (see Federalist 51)–to his second: protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The 14th prioritizes “ideals of liberty and equality.” 

Amar and Richardson are two of the many historians and constitutional scholars who define the period following the Civil War as a “reconstruction” or “second founding.” (Amar’s magisterial book The Bill of Rights is subtitled Creation and Reconstruction.) So it is very interesting that today’s self-described “originalists” ignore that reconstruction.

I can see two reasons for that studied avoidance: first, the clear legal meaning of those Amendments, especially the 14th, is inconsistent with their theocratic revisionism; and second, they provide clear historical evidence that Constitutional principles have evolved to meet changing times.

A 2019 article in the New Yorker focused on the work of constitutional historian Eric Foner, who has written extensively on the Reconstruction Amendments. As Foner explains, the issues central to those Amendments remain central to our politics today.

Who should vote? Who should be a citizen? What does equality before the law really mean? But, most important, and without trying to denigrate any other scholar, I lecture a lot about Reconstruction—I lecture in law schools, I lecture in history departments, I lecture to public audiences outside the academy—and I have found that there’s very little knowledge of why the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are important, or what they were trying to accomplish, even in law schools.

Foner points out that, even in the immediate wake of their passage, the Court narrowed  application of the Amendments, arguing–against the evidence–that they hadn’t really effected much change. Foner and other historians disagree.

Many years ago, when I was doing research for a book I was writing, I unearthed  contemporaneous newspaper coverage of the arguments for and against ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Those debates confirm Foner’s reading: the Americans who were preparing to vote on their state’s ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment believed it made very substantive expansions to the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship. It was with that understanding that they voted for (or against) ratification.

As one pundit noted during Amy Comes Barrett’s (excessively brief) confirmation hearing: “given that the Constitution was effectively rewritten by the Reconstruction Amendments, it would be great to see a Supreme Court nominee say something like “I will interpret the Constitution as it was understood in 1870.”

In 2004, the Brennan Center issued a paper explaining the real history of the Reconstruction Amendments, and the persistent failure of the Supreme Court to properly respect and interpret them.(The current court is simply a more egregious example of a longtime failure of jurisprudence.)

From the introduction to that paper

The Supreme Court’s recent turn away from civil rights and toward states rights claims legitimacy from a familiar but false history: the Constitution of 1787 carefully preserved the states sovereignty; Congress operated for 150 years within narrow constraints on its enumerated powers; the courts zealously policed the boundaries of proper federal action; and the half-century starting with the New Deal, when the Supreme Court allowed the federal government to do more or less what it wanted, was an anomaly.

None of this is true. If there is an anomalous period in the relationship between the Court and Congress, it began shortly after the Civil War … These decisions betrayed Lincoln, who had promised a new birth of freedom at Gettysburg, and the people who enacted the constitutional amendments and legislation to make that promise a reality… 

Basically, the Court continues to ignore “the widely understood meaning and purpose of those amendments at the time they were ratified.”

We have very selective “originalists”!