Analysis: Historian outlines fight over ‘radical’ textbook

Published 11:48 pm Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Civil Rights Culture Wars,” a new book by Mississippi historian Charles W. Eagles, tells the compelling backstory of a 1970s textbook that challenged the bland and sanitized way 9th graders had been taught the state’s history.

The textbook, “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” had several contributors, with the bulk of the writing and editing by sociologist James Loewen of Tougaloo College and historian Charles Sallis of Millsaps College.

Historically black Tougaloo, a private school in Jackson, was a haven for civil rights activists in the 1950s and ‘60s, and faculty members there developed ties with colleagues from Millsaps, a predominantly white United Methodist school just a few miles away.

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Eagles said “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” was considered “radical” because it included narratives about groups of people who had received little attention in Mississippi textbooks up to that point — African-Americans, Native Americans, women of all races and workers.

The history of a history book is interesting in the context of current debates about how Americans, and particular those in the South, deal with remembrance of the past, including the display of Confederate monuments and the continued use of the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi state flag.

“Mississippi: Conflict and Change” sought to present different points of view, and to push students to use their own analytical skills.

In his opening chapter, Eagles writes about previous Mississippi textbooks: “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 state-sanctioned amnesia played a vital role in the perpetuation of white supremacy and racial discrimination.”

Eagles, now retired as a history professor at the University of Mississippi, spoke about his new book in Jackson last week at an event sponsored by the state Department of Archives and History. He said he had been telling graduate students for years that the story of “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” would be an interesting topic for a master’s thesis. No student grabbed the idea, so Eagles wrote the story himself.

Eagles says two quotes he chose for the front of the book show why history is important.

In 1963, segregationist Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett said: “There is nothing more important than molding the hearts and minds of children in the right direction.”

The other quote is from a black mother in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1964, whose name is not published by Eagles: “I’ve seen the books they give our children in school…. 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, they might as well be slaves!”

“Mississippi: Conflict and Change” was rejected by a state textbook committee in 1974. In response, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund represented students and other plaintiffs who sued the state for reconsideration.

After years of litigation, U.S. District Judge Orma R. Smith ordered the state to put “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” on an approved list of textbooks for six years. The judge wrote that “controversial treatment of racial issues was not a justifiable reason for rejection” by the textbook committee.

One of the people attending Eagles’ presentation last week was Charles A. Weeks, who taught history at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson. He said that in addition to “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” he had his state history students read memoirs, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” by Anne Moody and “Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son,” by William Alexander Percy.
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.