A short history of fake history: Why fighting for the truth is critical

A case of fake history repeating itself: The American right told vicious lies about the Confederacy for decades

By Robert S. McElvaine

Contributing Writer

Published September 17, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Freedom school teacher Liz Fusco with students- Ruleville, Mississippi. 1964 (Tracy Sugarman/Jackson State University via Getty Images)
Freedom school teacher Liz Fusco with students- Ruleville, Mississippi. 1964 (Tracy Sugarman/Jackson State University via Getty Images)

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

Within a few decades after the Civil War, it came to be the losers' stories of "a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields," moonlight and magnolias, kindly masters and happy slaves, a glorious "Lost Cause" and a horrible period of "Black Reconstruction" that were widely accepted as accurate history. 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 Southern doctrine that people of African ancestry were innately inferior. That acceptance was facilitated by the popularity of the pseudoscience of social Darwinism and a fabricated story that Reconstruction had been a monstrous time of rule by ignorant black people, rather than the largely successful period of progressive and democratic reform that it actually was.

This inverted history had an enormous impact on the lives of at least three generations of Americans that, though diminished, continues down to the present. The most consequential telling of it is found in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, "Birth of a Nation," a landmark work both of cinema and white supremacist propaganda. The movie represents enslavers as benevolent caretakers for a lower life form. Enslaved people are shown singing and dancing during the "two-hour interval given for dinner." Reconstruction is painted as a time in which the "natural order" of white superiority was turned upside down. Griffith presents a frightening picture of "crazed negroes," with the necessary restraints of slavery removed, making "helpless whites" their "victims." One of the title cards in the silent movie depicts the restoring of white man's rule as a glorious event and describes it as "the former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright."

The view that Reconstruction was a period of terrifying "black domination," and Restoration the rightful reaffirmation of the United States as "a white man's country," was prevalent throughout the nation from the 1890s into the early 1960s. Pushed by followers of early 20th-century Columbia University historian William Dunning, this interpretation was routinely taught in schools. It was also reflected in popular culture, notably in Margaret Mitchell's hugely successful 1936 novel "Gone With the Wind" and its 1939 film adaptation.

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The 1950s — the time when Republicans today say America was "great" — lasted well into the early 1960s. Though it is often referred to as an "age of innocence," in fact it was an age of ignorance of guilt. Restoring that ignorance is a major component of the authoritarians' plan to "Take America Back."

The view that Reconstruction was a period of terrifying "black domination," and Restoration the rightful reaffirmation of the United States as "a white man's country," was prevalent from the 1890s into the early 1960s.

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

It was in 1964 that the dam holding back the truth about the American past cracked. "A Shadow Stretched Across Our History for a Hundred Years," read a New York Times Book Review headline on Sept. 13, 1964. That shadow, cast by the acceptance of the losers' false history, which continued its pernicious effects through the Jim Crow era of segregation, was finally being lifted. Newer scholarship — and some older but largely ignored works, notably W.E.B. Du Bois' 1936 "Black Reconstruction in America" — that presented a very different view of Reconstruction was brought to a wider public attention.

Even more important in overturning the whitewashed history that had held sway for so long was the impact of the civil rights movement in awakening many Americans, particularly the young, to the fact that they had been spoon-fed a distorted version of the nation's past.

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Particularly significant in that regard were the Freedom Schools set up during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. "Education in Mississippi is an institution which must be reconstructed from the bottom up," said Charles Cobb, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary who pushed the idea of Freedom Schools. The prospectus that was sent to volunteers who would teach in the schools, "Notes on Teaching in Mississippi," explained that Black students "have been denied free expression and free thought. Most of all ... they have been denied the right to question." Students were encouraged to bring their own experiences with the institutions and practices of Mississippi into the discussion.

Among the innovations of the Freedom Schools was the teaching of African American history. It was a revelation to many of the students that people like them had a history. The rise of Black history, as well as other areas of ethnic history and women's history, as the '60s blossomed was in part the result of what began in the Mississippi Freedom Schools in the summer of 1964.

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Today's right-wing extremists seek to "Take Back America" in two senses: back from those who are not white or not male and back to the time when straight white males were in charge. An essential part of their overall quest to effect a second "Restoration" of white man's rule is an attempt to restore the ignorance of American history that had prevailed before 1964.

States under right-wing control have been passing laws restricting what may be taught in their schools, especially about racism. The Republican-controlled Texas state legislature enacted a law in 2021 specifying what should — and should not — be taught to students about their nation's and state's past. Excluded were the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal government and states from denying or abridging the right to vote "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," the 1965 Voting Rights Act, "the history of Native Americans" and documents on the separation of church and state and the women's, Chicano and labor movements. Existing standards calling for teaching about the ways in which white supremacy, slavery, eugenics and the Ku Klux Klan are "morally wrong" were removed. The law is unmistakably a formula for again making Texas, where non-Hispanic whites are already a minority, what it was before 1964: a white man's state.

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

Not to be outdone in the Orwellian project of reconstructing the past to promote nefarious objectives in the present, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had the state Department of Education hold training sessions for teachers this summer, as part of a "civics 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 the separation of church and state, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and other flat-out lies.

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

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

Directives to Florida teachers ordering that books about LGBTQ people be put "in the closet" speaks volumes about where the red-state suppression of truth and free inquiry is going.

Freedom Schools were the antidote to unfree schools in 1964. In 2022, making schools and history unfree is intended to reinstate the ignorance of the past that prevailed six decades ago. A July story in the Washington Post reported on directives to schools and teachers in Florida to take all books on a list of those not "in compliance" with state laws and hide them "in a classroom closet" or elsewhere where students cannot see them. That's a step above urinating on books, but still outrageous. (Some of the books on the no-read lists are about LGBTQ+ people;  ordering them put "in the closet" speaks volumes about where red-state suppression of truth and free inquiry is going.)

There is much about the history of the United States in which we can rightly take pride.  But to pretend that there are not also dark and difficult truths in our past constitutes a Big Lie that serves the interests only of those who want to destroy the American experiment.

Among the reasons why the times they were a-changin' in 1964 and "the losers now will be later to win," as Bob Dylan said in a song released that January, was the displacement of a whitewashed version of the American past with a more truthful one. The authoritarians who seek to undermine democracy and freedom today understand that their success depends not only on disseminating fake news, but also on sowing "fake olds." The rest of us must understand that, too.

By Robert S. McElvaine

Historian Robert S. McElvaine teaches at Millsaps College. He is the author of "Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History." His latest book, "The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn," has just been published.

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1960s Civil Rights Movement Deep Dive Education Freedom Schools History Jim Crow Racism Republicans Ron Desantis