Comment: Refusing teach about racism prolonged it during ’60s

The history taught in high schools about slavery became the racist beliefs of college students.

By Robert Cohen / Special To The Washington Post

The reactionary nostalgia evoked by Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan has taken on a new dimension: a push to censor what gets taught in America’s history classrooms. New laws in red states — and even some purple states — aim to ban the teaching of critical race theory, and one district in Tennessee has even banned a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.

These moves are a throwback to the right wing’s idea of an educational golden age; the period before the civil rights movement transformed American education. That period reminds us that such political actions can have a chilling effect on teachers’ willingness to teach about race and racism. And a lack of education on these topics can have devastating consequences, something that was on display at the University of Georgia in 1961.

What did education look like on the white side of the color line in the Jim Crow South?

As one student wrote 30 years after finishing his segregated education in Georgia, from elementary school through high school, “there was not a single instance — not one — in which any of the teachers initiated, even allowed a discussion about racism.” Instead, teachers and textbooks presented U.S. history as the triumph of democracy. Any serious engagement with slavery, Jim Crow or even the Black experience got excluded from what historian Nathan Huggins has termed America’s “master narrative.”

But without these discussions, white students never bothered to ask themselves why their towns had separate Black and White water fountains, waiting rooms, bus stations and more. Instead, they saw bigotry, in the words of one of those students decades later, as “just the way things were, and would always be.”

This lack of knowledge about Jim Crow policies, racism and the South’s past left children and young adults with skewed perceptions. Nowhere was this clearer than in 35 essays written by white undergraduates at UGA less than a week after a segregationist riot erupted Jan. 11, 1961, outside the dormitory of Charlayne Hunter, one of two Black students to desegregate the university and the first to live on campus. These essays came from a surprising place: A calculus professor, who was one of the faculty members who belatedly stood up to the campus’ belligerent segregationists after witnessing their racist violence, asked his students to reflect on the riot and UGA’s desegregation crisis.

The essays confirmed that students lacked a formal education on issues related to race; only two of them mentioned any educational institution influencing their ideas on the topic.

The substance of the essays also made clear that most white UGA students had learned nothing in school to challenge white-supremacist assumptions based in myths and falsehoods. Crude stereotypes of Black inferiority pervaded the most strongly segregationist essays: “The Negro has a lack of ambition. He does not have the desire to work and better himself,” read one essay. It also claimed that African Americans did not have “the morals we have,” nor were they “as physically clean as whites.”

Another student noted, “I personally do not desire to associate” with Blacks because they “have a low moral standard.” The student’s “evidence” to support this claim? Stereotypes about how Black Americans had “their brand new Cadillac standing in the yard of their one room tennant [sic] home (neither paid for yet).” The student also cited purported criminality among African Americans to justify their view.

Students also invoked pseudoscience — picked up from racist family members, friends and the rhetoric of white-supremacist organizations and politicians — to support segregation. One student did not want integration because, they claimed, “the Negroid race” was “inferior to the Caucasian race … The Negro has an average one eighth more bone thickness on his skull. This leads one to believe that the Negro has not come as far through evolution as the White Man.”

Finally, the students trafficked in sexual stereotypes that had long been a staple of white-supremacist propaganda. As one student put it: “In college I feel that women will be protected better if they don’t have to dodge colored boys.” Such racist fears of Black men as sexual predators had deep roots in the South, and white supremacists had used them to justify horrific vigilantism, lynchings and the enactment of anti-miscegenation laws.

The students also lacked even a rudimentary knowledge of the civil rights movement, which was barely mentioned in their high school history textbooks. Collectively, the 35 essays cited only one civil rights organization: the NAACP.

Even the students who mentioned the NAACP fretted that the organization was “communist infiltrated” and part of a communist plot to “break up the United States.” These fears had no basis in fact. The NAACP was a legalistic organization that was far more moderate tactically than the direct action-oriented wings of the civil rights movement that were growing in prominence in 1961. Instead, these claims parroted the propaganda of segregationist politicians trying to discredit the civil rights movement. The students proved historically illiterate about the movement’s leadership as well: Not one of the essays mentioned a single civil rights movement leader or named any African American.

All 35 essays displayed a racially bound parochialism. Even students who were not overtly racist displayed a total inability to understand, even to care, about how those on the Black side of the color line experienced life. The essays displayed an unmistakable lack of empathy when the students wrote about UGA’s desegregation crisis.

White student mobs had hung effigies of Black students, marched behind a banner deploying a racial slur to tell Hunter and Hamilton Holmes — the university’s other pioneering Black student — to “go home” and rioted. Yet the student essay writers depicted themselves as the victims of the situation. As one essayist explained, “Many students, parents, and Georgians feel hurt because our federal government has shown that it … can force people to do things which we dislike.” The student thought that UGA students “as citizens should have a right to go to segregated schools.”

“I am mad,” another student wrote, that an integrationist “federal government took away state’s rights.” The student thought the decision “does not make up a democracy.”

Such rhetoric echoed that of segregationist politicians, whose pious phrases about federalism and states’ rights (for white people) obfuscated state wrongs, namely the reality that the Jim Crow system of legally ordained racial discrimination reduced Blacks to second-class citizens. Media interviews with white UGA students about the crisis led Bruce Galphin of the Atlanta Constitution to complain that UGA’s faculty had not challenged the white-supremacist misconceptions that their students had brought with them to college: He wondered what the students “have been studying at the university” because their “only tutors in political science” appeared to have been “extremist politicians.” The students kept “spewing up” cliches and buzzwords like “judicial tyranny” and “socialism.”

Even Galphin, however, did not mention, the reason even liberal professors and teachers avoided challenging such segregationist assumptions in their Georgia classrooms. They lacked the academic freedom to teach about racial integration. It was, as one UGA professor put it, “dangerous” to discuss the issue because doing so put their jobs at risk. That was clear after Georgia’s governor attacked and fired UGA’s education school dean “for just hinting that one day integration would come to the South.”

These efforts parallel some of the most extreme situations in 2022. In some states, teachers have lost their jobs for even dabbling in anti-racist education, and Virginia’s new Republican governor recently established a hotline for turning in teachers who promote “divisive practices.”

But the UGA student essays underscore the dangers of such practices. Because schools did not address or teach about racism or its history, it freed far-right politicians, parents, families and friends to school even the brightest and most capable young white Georgians in racial bigotry.

While red-state America in 2022 is far different from Georgia in 1961, this history provides a stark warning: When schools cannot encourage candid study and critical thinking about racism and anti-Blackness, it leads to the propitiation of the bigotry that has long plagued American society.

Robert Cohen is a professor of history and social studies education at NYU, whose most recent book is “Rethinking America’s Past: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the Classroom and Beyond” (2021), co-authored by Sonia Murrow.

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