GOP Lawmakers Are Trying to Prevent Students From Learning About Reconstruction

The homepage of a new website features the above quote. Zinn Education Project report on state education standards on Reconstruction — and how this crucial history is taught, and mistaught, across the country.

The period from the Civil War to 1877, when a radical movement for wealth redistribution and Black power swept the country, is called Reconstruction. The consequences of Reconstruction’s unfinished revolution surround us, permeate our experience of daily life, provide crucial lessons for understanding our world today and suggest important methods for uprooting systemic racism. And for that very reason, guardians of the status quo have long sought to hide Reconstruction’s unprecedented advancements for Black people from students in a concerted effort to deny them the anti-racist lessons this history affords.

The attack on Reconstruction teaching has been intensified by the current assault on education. Some 41 statesThey have introduced legislation or pursued additional measures to inhibit conversations about race. These restrictions seek to require that educators conceal the history and structural racism in the U.S.

“Systematic racism should not be taught to our children,” State Sen. Michael McLendon arguedDuring the Mississippi legislature debate about the anti-critical racism bill, which he presented. Quite evidently, he doesn’t mind perpetuating systemic racism by sponsoring racist bills, he just has a problem with students learning about it. Governor. Tate Reeves claimed that teaching about systemic racism serves only to “humiliate” students. Historian Stephen West pointed out the irony and familiarity of this language, which was used during Reconstruction by congressional Klan supporters “causelessly humiliated” by strides toward racial justice.

Teachers from all over the country, from Alabama to Arizona, Missouri to North Carolina. have told the Zinn Education ProjectThey fear that the laws will restrict Reconstruction education, already badly neglected and distorted. Lee R. White is a high school social studies teacher in Winthrop, Iowa, one of the states that ban teaching about racism, sexism, and other so-called “divisive concepts.” White says that “the political climate of the conservatives pushing back against teaching anything negative about our history” threatens to seriously interfere with the teaching of Reconstruction. Denny McCabe, a retired Iowa educator, noted that these efforts could create a “chilling effect on current teachers who need to teach about white supremacy and racism in order to do justice to the topic.”

Our report “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction” — the first comprehensive study of all state standards on Reconstruction — found that states’ established education standards overwhelmingly ignore the role of white supremacy in ending Reconstruction, reproduce a racist and false framing of Reconstruction, and obscure the contributions of Black people to Reconstruction’s achievements. Only Massachusetts’ standardsMention white supremacy, its direct link with the rise of Ku Klux Klan, passage of Black Codes & Jim Crow laws, as well as the defeat of Reconstruction. Georgia’s “Standards of Excellence” instruct teachers to “Compare and contrast the goals and outcomes of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Ku Klux Klan [KKK].” (The Freedmen’s Bureau was a government agency founded to help provide freed people with the shelter, clothing, supplies and education they needed after the civil war; the KKK is a terrorist organization. Students are not allowed to compare the two. This creates a false moral equivalence. Zinn Education Project curriculum writer Ursula Wolfe-Rocca describesSome of the other problems associated with state Reconstruction standards

In many states, Reconstruction only appears on a list of topics or themes teachers should address for a particular time span; in Maine, Reconstruction doesn’t even merit that much space. Maine’s standards define the period 1844–1877 as “Regional tensions and the Civil War.” Connecticut too leaves out Reconstruction in its list of themes like Westward Expansion, Industrialization, and the Rise of Organized Labor.

Why is Reconstruction’s lessons being attacked or hidden from students? Because the right-wing attack on voting rights, the attack on critical race theory and the escalation of open white supremacy are all aided by what Professor Henry A. Giroux calls the “violence of organized forgetting.” Giroux describes the violence of organized forgetting as an effort by elites to hide vital lessons of the past that could empower social movements such as “the historical legacies of resistance to racism, militarism, privatization and panoptical surveillance [which] have long been forgotten and made invisible in the current assumption that Americans now live in a democratic, post-racial society.”

Given the severity of this intellectual violence, we must defend ourselves with what I will call the “healing of organized remembering” — collective efforts, in schools, but also in social movements, to recover vital historical lessons about challenges to injustice that have been concealed. Reconstruction is one of our most important steps towards healing.

Reconstruction was a time of massive social movements and unprecedented progress for racial justice. More than 1,500 Black Americans have been elected to office since the abolishment of slavery. Many of these were in majority-Black districts, where people could vote their first time. 16 Black Americans were members of Congress in the 1860s and 1870s. Nearly half of them were slaves. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — known as the Reconstruction Amendments — were added to the Constitution, and, respectively, abolished slavery (with the shameful exception to those who are imprisoned for a crime), extended citizenship rights to Black people and granted Black men the right to vote. The photographs capture the exhilarating moments during this original era Black Power. report’s description of Reconstruction:

Black people organized to fulfill freedom’s promise. They fought for the rights of black people to decide the terms of their labor, advocated state-funded public education, access land, the right vote, and the right on juries. They were active in state constitutional and political conventions and built churches and mutual aid groups.

But white supremacy led a violent counterrevolution that defeated Reconstruction. One of the primary strategies to dismantle Reconstruction was the war on Black education — just as today’s GOP attack on what it calls critical race theory is a centerpiece of its strategy for reelection and reversing the gains of the uprising for Black lives. Black people realized that education was the only way to true emancipation. They built the first public schools in the South after the Civil War. The hundreds of schools built and maintained by Black people threatened white supremacists. Adam Fairclough, historian explains, “The root of the issue was the same as ever: white control over Black labor. Planters and landlords worried that education diminished their supply of cheap labor by drawing Blacks from the country to the city, away from tenancy, sharecropping, and day labor.” Fairclough quotes one white resident of North Carolina saying, “To give him any education at all takes him out of the field and he is not worth anything to the farmer.” This sentiment was behind the Klan and other terrorists burning down well over 600 Black schoolsBetween 1864-1876

This historical context is crucial to understanding the current attack on truthful educational institutions. Anti-racist instruction and black education have always been a threat to a US social order that is based on structural racism. Ironically, the attack against critical race theory in education confirms a central claim of the theory: any advances for racial equality will be met by a white supremacist response. This was the case when Black people started the Reconstruction revolution, and it’s the case today in the wake of the 2020 uprising for Black lives, described by The Washington PostAs the broadest protest in U.S. history.

History has seen a concerted effort to deny, sequester, and distort the achievements of Black people during this amazing period. But, racial justice organizers and Black scholars have always preserved the true legacy of Reconstruction. His 1935 masterpiece is here. Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois debunked the white supremacist “Lost Cause” narrative that advanced the pseudohistory of a noble Confederacy defending itself from northern aggression. Black leaders often referred the civil rights movement to the Second Reconstruction, and Martin Luther King Jr. fully understood the importance of that first one. saying,

White historians had for a century crudely distorted the Negro’s role in the Reconstruction years. It was a deliberate and conscious manipulation of history, and the stakes were high. The Reconstruction [era] was a period in which Black men had a small measure of freedom of action … far from being the tragic era white historians described, it was the only period in which democracy existed in the South.”

Teachers, students, and parents are all in the same boat today. building a movement to teach truthfully about structural racism and raising their voices against the violence perpetrated on students’ intellectual development when Reconstruction is erased in school. Over 8,000 educators have signed the Zinn Education Project’s pledge to teach the truthAbout structural racism and oppression. An open letter aimed at school administrations around the country, over 200 scholars of U.S. history urge “school districts to devote more time and resources to the teaching of the Reconstruction era in upper elementary, middle, and high school U.S. history and civics courses.”

The task that remains for those of us interested in making Black lives matter to the institutions and political structures of our society is to complete — and extend — the efforts that were undertaken during Reconstruction. As Ann Arbor middle school teacher Rachel Toon said, “Reconstruction is the single most important era for students to understand. Everything that is happening in their world today can be traced back to the way Reconstruction happened — and how it was thwarted.”