A short history of false history: Why fighting for the truth is essential

It is often said that history is a story told by the victors. It might be more accurate to say that those who tell their story as a story and make others believe it thus become the winners themselves. This happened on a large scale in the United States from the late 19th century to the 1960s. This 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.

A few decades after the Civil War, these are the stories of the losers of a “land of horsemen and cotton fields,” of moonlight and magnolias, of benevolent masters and happy slaves, of a glorious “cause Lost” and a horrific period of “Black Reconstruction” that have been widely accepted as the true story. 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 doctrine of the South that people of African descent were inherently inferior. This acceptance was facilitated by the popularity of the pseudoscience of Social Darwinism and a fabricated story that Reconstruction had been a monstrous period of rule by ignorant blacks, rather than the largely successful period of progressive, democratic reform it was in. reality.

This reverse history had a huge impact on the lives of at least three generations of Americans which, though diminished, continues to the present day. The most consequential account is found in DW Griffith’s 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation,” a landmark work of both cinema and white supremacist propaganda. The film portrays slavers as benevolent guardians of a lesser life form. The slaves are shown singing and dancing during the “two hour interval granted for dinner”. The reconstruction is painted as a time when the “natural order” of white superiority was upset. Griffith presents a chilling image of “crazy niggers”, without the necessary restraints of slavery, making “helpless white people” their “victims”. One of the silent film’s title cards depicts the restoration of white man’s rule as a glorious event and describes it as “the old enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their right to Aryan elderhood”.

The view that Reconstruction was a time of terrifying “black domination” and the Restoration the legitimate reassertion of the United States as a “white man’s country” was widespread throughout the country from the 1890s to the early 1990s. 1960. Pushed by followers of early 20th century Columbia University historian William Dunning, this interpretation was regularly taught in schools. It was also reflected in popular culture, most notably in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestselling novel “Gone with the Wind” and its 1939 film adaptation.

* * *

The 1950s – the era when Republicans today say America was “great” – lasted until the early 1960s. Although it is often referred to as the “age of innocence”, c It was actually an age of ignoring guilt. Restoring this ignorance is a major part of the authoritarians’ plan to “Take America Back”.

The view that Reconstruction was a time of terrifying “black domination” and Restoration the legitimate reassertion of the United States as a “white man’s country” was prevalent from the 1890s to the early 1960s.

In 1964, songwriter and folksinger Tom Paxton recorded “What Did You Learn in School Today?” It’s a biting satirical attack on the misinformation that was still being taught about America’s past. The son of the song responds to his father’s question by saying that he learned that everyone in the United States is free, that our country is always right and just, that the police are always our friends, that wars that leads America are always good, etc. Paxton’s lyrics again seem tailor-made for the “guiltless” mythology that Republicans today seek to impose on school curricula while calling it history.

It was in 1964 that the dam holding back the truth about America’s past cracked. “A Shadow Stretched Across Our History for a Hundred Years,” reads a headline from the New York Times Book Review on September 13, 1964. This shadow, cast by the acceptance of the losers’ false history, which continued its pernicious effects through the Jim Crow era of segregation was finally lifted. More recent scholarship – and some older but largely overlooked work, including WEB Du Bois’s 1936 “Black Reconstruction in America” – which presented a very different vision of reconstruction was brought to the attention of a wider audience.

Even more important in reversing the whitewashed history that had reigned for so long was the impact of the civil rights movement in awakening many Americans, especially young people, to the fact that they had been spoon-fed of a distorted version of the nation’s past.


Want a daily recap of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.


The Freedom Schools established during the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 are particularly important in this regard. “Education in Mississippi is an institution that needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up,” said Charles Cobb, the field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that pushed the Freedom Schools idea. The flyer that was sent to volunteers who would teach in the schools, “Notes on Teaching in Mississippi,” explained that black students “have been denied freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Above all…they were denied the right to question.” Students were encouraged to bring their own experiences with Mississippi institutions and practices into the discussion.

Among the innovations of the Freedom Schools was the teaching of African-American history. It was an eye opener for many students that people love them had A story. The rise of black history, as well as other areas of ethnic history and women’s history, as the 1960s blossomed, was partly the result of what began in the Mississippi Freedom Schools in the summer of 1964.

* * *

Right-wing extremists today seek to “take back America” in two ways: of those who are non-white or non-male and back at when straight white men were in charge. An essential part of their overall quest to effect a second “Restoration” of white man rule is an attempt to restore the ignorance of American history that had prevailed prior to 1964.

Right-wing controlled states have passed laws restricting what can be taught in their schools, particularly about racism. The Republican-controlled Texas state legislature passed a law in 2021 specifying what students should — and shouldn’t — be taught about their nation’s and state’s past. Excluded are the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal government and states from denying or restricting the right to vote “because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”, the Human Rights Act of 1965 voting records, “Native American history” and documents on the separation of church and state and on the women’s, Chicano and labor movements. Existing standards calling for teaching the ways in which white supremacy, slavery, eugenics and the Ku Klux Klan are “morally wrong” have been removed. The law is unmistakably a formula for making Texas, where non-Hispanic whites are already a minority, what it was before 1964: a state of white men.

At its state convention in June of this year, the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform demanding that lies be taught as history and insisting that the traitors who led the Slave Rebellion (aka Civil War ) be revered.

Not to be outdone in the Orwellian project of reconstructing the past to promote nefarious goals in the present, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has asked the state Department of Education to organize training sessions for teachers this summer, as part of a “civic excellence” program. Teachers who attended reported that they were instructed to teach students that American slavery wasn’t really that bad, that the founders didn’t want separation of church and state, that the United States had been founded as a Christian nation and other boring things. lies.

* * *

Mississippi racists in 1964 feared that knowing the truth would set people free. Across America’s red state in 2022, zealous right-wingers who share this fear are leading search-and-destroy missions against books and teachers who dare to speak the truth about the nation’s past.

At the Freedom School in Canton, Mississippi, a small town just north of Jackson, an incident in July 1964 perfectly symbolized the views and goals of opponents of truth and freedom, then and now. today. Local white people broke into the building housing the school and its small library and urinated on the books.

The guidelines for Florida teachers ordering that books about LGBTQ people be put “in the closet” speak volumes about the direction of the Red State’s suppression of truth and free inquiry.

Freedom schools were the antidote to unfree schools in 1964. In 2022, making schools and history unfree aims to restore the ignorance of the past that prevailed six decades ago. A July article in the Washington Post reported directives for schools and teachers in Florida to take all books on a list of those that do not “comply” with state laws and hide them “in a closet. classroom” or elsewhere where students cannot see them. It’s a step above urinating on pounds, but still outrageous. (Some of the books on the don’t-read lists are about LGBTQ+ people; ordering them “in the closet” says a lot about where the red state’s suppression of truth and free inquiry is heading.)

There are many things in the history of the United States of which we can justly be proud. But to pretend that there are not so dark and difficult truths in our past is a Big Lie that only serves the interests of those who want to destroy the American experience.

Among the reasons times were changing in 1964 and “losers win later,” as Bob Dylan put it in a song released in January, was the displacement of a whitewashed version of America’s past with a more truthful one. Authoritarians today who seek to undermine democracy and freedom understand that their success depends not only on spreading fake news, but also on the seed of “fake olds”. The rest of us need to understand this too.

Read more

of Salon on the battle of history