James W. Loewen, Who Challenged How History Is Taught, Dies at 79

James W. Loewen, Who Challenged How History Is Taught, Dies at 79

Patiently, he explained to his class: Black people never took over the Southern states. They all had white governors, and all but one had white legislative majorities. Reconstruction governments did not “screw up.” They created the best constitutions the South had ever had, and better governments than any others in the South in the 19th century. And whites did not put things right by taking control again. The people who took charge were white supremacists, and some were original Ku Klux Klansmen.

As to the problem of textbook distortions, Dr. Loewen found that state review and purchasing panels controlled the use of public schools’ books. The history text widely in use for years in Mississippi described Black people as complacent or troublemaking. It said Black officeholders during Reconstruction were corrupt, and it called the Ku Klux Klan a “secret social and fraternal club.” Lynching was not even mentioned.

Dr. Loewen and the historian Charles Sallis of Millsaps College crafted an extraordinary response over several years, co-writing and editing “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” (1974), a total revision of the state’s historical past. With an interdisciplinary approach that was less concerned with linear facts and dates, the book examined the social, political and cultural components of Mississippi life throughout history.

It profiled politicians, blues singers, writers and others who left their mark in different fields. It detailed years of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the modern struggle for civil rights, the Supreme Court ruling against school segregation, and current accounts of race relations and conflicts. It called the K.K.K. a terrorist organization created to preserve a “Southern way of life,” and said that Black schoolchildren had been kept segregated under bogus “separate but equal” doctrines.

Pantheon Books published “Mississippi: Conflict and Change,” which won the 1976 Lillian Smith Book Award for best Southern nonfiction. But Mississippi officials vetoed its use in schools, calling it racially inflammatory. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Mississippi-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued in federal court on behalf of Dr. Loewen and his co-authors.

In 1980, a United States District Court, citing First and Fourteenth Amendment freedoms, ruled in favor of Dr. Loewen and his colleagues. The American Library Association called it a victory for the “right to read freely.”

Acceptance of “Conflict and Change,” and its prompt use by 26 of 150 school districts in the state, began what Dr. Loewen called a sea change in Mississippi history books. The book remained in use there for six years. And in succeeding years, many authors wrote, and the state accepted, more objective and comprehensive volumes.

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