Historically, Mississippi schoolchildren have read from state history textbooks featuring tone, content, and perspective that reflected contemporary racial conditions in larger society. For much of the twentieth century, a white-supremacist narrative defined these textbooks, but an alternative narrative arose during the era of civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s to challenge that version of events.
The first state history texts were written by white Mississippians at a time when Civil War veterans still walked the streets and when memories of Reconstruction remained fresh. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Legion, and later the Citizens’ Council screened textbooks to ensure that they upheld the principles of the Lost Cause, southern pride, states’ rights, and white cultural superiority while avoiding suggestions of black autonomy and discontent. Working in cooperation with the state textbook ratings committee (created in the 1940s) and the state superintendent of schools, these organizations set forth an ideologically pure agenda not only to teach “correct, fair, and unbiased” facts, as the United Daughters of the Confederacy put it, but also to instill the values of white culture, principles of good citizenship and patriotism, and a faith in the racial hierarchy.
One early textbook that met these standards and that was used by teachers in both black and white classrooms was History of Mississippi: A School Reader, written by Mabel B. Fant and John C. Fant and published by the Mississippi Publishing Company in 1927. It advanced a mythic southernized version of history constructed around a narrative that was selective rather than comprehensive. Whites were regarded with the nomenclature Mississippian and inclusive pronouns (we, us), while blacks (and Indians) were characterized with exclusionary pronouns (they, them). From this perspective, whites were the true history makers, while blacks were shunted to the margins. Readers were led to believe that except during the unfortunate period of Reconstruction, harmony and goodwill prevailed between the races.
Published in 1935, Pearl Guyton’s The History of Mississippi: From Indian Times to the Present Day followed the Fant formula. Guyton portrayed slavery as a benign institution of uplift for African savages and Reconstruction as a benighted era of black supremacy, ineptness, and corruption. Her heroes were a noble Ku Klux Klan that rescued the South from the scourge of Yankee carpetbaggers, southern white scalawags, and deluded blacks. When all was over, “the hard feelings that existed between the blacks and whites during reconstruction times gave way to understanding and cooperation.”
Guyton’s book remained an approved text until it went out of print in the 1960s. By then, Mississippi: Yesterday and Today, by John K. Bettersworth, became the standard in classrooms, and it was the only option available in the late 1960s and 1970s. Bettersworth refrained from the romanticism and pathos that characterized his predecessors’ books, but he, too, ignored the historical contributions of blacks, offered a traditional interpretation of Reconstruction, and portrayed Gov. Ross Barnett—a rabid white supremacist—as a defender of constitutional government.
The first challenge to the segregationist narrative came in 1974 with the publication of Mississippi: Conflict and Change, by James Loewen, Charles Sallis, and other authors, black and white. Unabashed in its criticism of Mississippi’s racial past, the book recognized the historical agency of blacks and debunked the myth of harmonious race relations. It also dealt with other issues previously considered too controversial for a textbook: poverty, lynching, labor unrest, and white political corruption. Although the book captured the prestigious Lillian Smith Award, given by the Southern Regional Council to recognize authors whose books represent “outstanding creative achievements which demonstrate through literary merit and moral vision an honest representation of the South, its people, its problems, and its promises,” Mississippi’s textbook commission refused to approve the volume for classroom use. With the aid of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the authors sued, and in 1980 a US district court ordered the state to approve the textbook. Other books with more balanced interpretations of Mississippi’s racial past were then introduced, giving school districts a broad selection of state history textbooks with more comprehensive and inclusive narratives.
- Jack E. Davis, Race against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez since 1930 (2001)
- Charles Eagles, Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook (2017)
- Georgia Center for the Book website, www.georgiacenterforthebook.org