Civil Rights Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook
reviewed by Jon N. Hale - March 01, 2018
Title: Civil Rights Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook
Author(s): Charles W. Eagles
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
ISBN: 1469631156, Pages: 312, Year: 2017
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The history curriculum of schools has often been the subject of debate, drawing extensive attention from scholars, practitioners, and policymakers since the foundation of public education. In Civil Rights Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook, Charles Eagles provides an important contribution to this discourse through his definitive history of the controversy surrounding James Loewens and Charles Sallis 1964 edited textbook, Mississippi: Conflict & Change. This book highlights a critical moment in curricular history when revisionist scholars worked to incorporate new interpretations and ignored sources into history classrooms to transform an entrenched curriculum that perpetuated white supremacy and racial discrimination.
Eagles begins this history with a broad overview of the origins of public school textbook controversy. The first chapter examines textbook corruption and the politics surrounding the selection of curricular material across the country, particularly during the Progressive Era. In Mississippi, ongoing controversies and graft at the national and state level led to legislative reforms that established textbook commissions. The state eventually passed provisions to provide free textbooks to all students in 1940. The chapter also highlights the domineering oversight of conservative watchdogs such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The second chapter provides a thorough examination of textbooks adopted in Mississippi. As Eagles demonstrates, prevailing interpretations of the Lost Cause perpetuated stereotypes of black inferiority and invoked nostalgic interpretations of a slave-owning past, which persisted well after the Second World War. Eagles aptly conveys how a conservative ideology that underpinned textbooks maintained a closed society in Mississippi and preserved the Southern way of life. As resistance to the Brown decision and the burgeoning civil rights movement mounted through the 1960s, segregationists established a standard in which a textbook could not succeed if it deviated from the prevailing racial orthodoxy (p. 30).
After contextualizing the politically charged textbook industry in Mississippi, Eagles devotes the fourth and fifth chapters to providing a comprehensive overview of the writing and publication of Mississippi: Conflict & Change. Writing against the prevailing orthodoxy of white supremacy, James Loewen, an activist sociologist then at Tougaloo College, and Charles Sallis, an historian at Millsaps College, formed a diverse team of writers that cut across race, gender, and academic disciplines. They collaborated to write a new history textbook for use in ninth grade classrooms where teachers were expected to teach Mississippi state history. The liberal émigré Ernst Borinski, who taught at Tougaloo College, an activist-oriented intellectual enclave just north of Jackson, shaped the revisionist intellectual climate. Borinskis Social Science Forum, the expanding collaboration between Millsaps and Tougaloo College, and a growing student movement in the capital city fostered the conditions for the undertaking, as did the Southern Education Foundation, which provided the initial funding for the project. Through the Mississippi History Project, the team of writers sought to turn traditional history upside down and write a revisionist history of the state from the bottom up. They also encouraged a new pedagogical approach that invited students to create their own interpretations by studying conflict as a unit of analysis and engaging with dynamic source material. As examined at length in the sixth chapter, the textbook was positively reviewed by academic journals, even receiving the esteemed Lillian Smith Award.
Yet the textbook was, predictably, poorly received within the state. Though a small handful of schools agreed to pilot the use of the book, to positive review, the state textbook commission ultimately voted to reject the text for use in Mississippi classrooms. As explained in the seventh chapter, the Textbook Purchasing Board instead selected John Bettersworths Your Mississippi, which espoused conventional history and interpretations. Loewen and Sallis had long anticipated a legal challenge to the state, and the eighth chapter examines their lawsuit with scrupulous detail. The editors secured representation by Melvyn Leventhal of the NAACPs Legal Defense Fund. They secured plaintiffs that represented a broad spectrum of race, gender, and religion in suing the state to accept the book. When Loewen v. Turnispeed made it to federal court, which Eagles covers in the ninth chapter, both sides presented their cases in a trial that was a microcosm of the changing social and political moment in which one side sought to transform conventional politics and the other side sought to defend it. In a case that largely centered on the First Amendments application to textbook publication and adoption, Judge Orma Smith ruled in favor of the textbook revisionists, ruling that they were injured by the state as their rights of freedom of the press, free speech, and academic freedom were violated. A moral victory for scholars and educators interested in publishing and teaching revisionist history, the textbook went on to receive lackluster adoption across the state. The textbook lost, as Eagles contends, in the marketplace. The tenth and concluding chapter places the books in the larger context of the culture wars of later generations that were oftentimes negotiated through controversies over the adoption of national history standards.
The use of sources in Civil Rights Culture Wars is exemplary as Charles Eagles expertly uses available primary sources from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the Mississippi State Textbook Publishing Board, and the National Archives and Records Administration. Through his personal connections to this history, which in no way jeopardize his objective vantage point, Eagles also utilizes the personal collections of both James Loewen and Charles Sallis. The use of sources demarcates this text as a definitive volume on a relatively obscure court case which is nevertheless integral to understanding the intersection of the civil rights movement and curricular history.
While the adroit use of archival sources is commendable, this sometimes leads to a verbose and oftentimes conventional, if not dense, historical analysis. The history of free textbook legislation in Mississippi, the summary of the major state history textbooks, and the background of each contributor to Mississippi: Conflict & Change, for instance, can be cumbersome to read. The summary of the disposition of each witness in the Loewen case at times obfuscates the more compelling meaning of the overarching narrative. A more thorough interpretation of the significance of textbook revisionism as a mode of resistance and its relation to other intellectual forms of activism, which Eagles points to in his conclusion, would provide necessary nuance and complexity to this definitive monograph.
It also seems that this history overlooks the active role of black educators in southern teacher associations, the NAACP, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, among many others, all of whom actively sought to revise the curriculum to address the racism and white supremacy perpetuated in southern textbooks. A longer history of black educators who sought to correct what Du Bois identified as the propaganda of history is largely missing. Loewen and Sallis are part of this longer tradition and, without delineating how this case builds upon it, Eagles inadvertently marginalizes black agency in the long freedom struggle, thereby unintentionally perpetuating the same pattern and practice of white-dominated history that Conflict & Change fought to transform.
The book provides an outstanding intertextual analysis of revisionist history aimed at broadening the critical interventions in curricular history. Civil Rights Culture Wars provides a definitive history of an instrumental court case that extended the protections of the First Amendment to critical scholars and educators interested in implementing a curriculum from an antiracist vantage point. As Eagles correctly posits, the Loewen case constituted a moral victory, which is a milestone in the longer struggle for an inclusive curriculum that we all must consider while shaping our own curriculum in an era of false moral equivalence.