Arkansas lawmakers backed down from censoring the 1619 Project in the state’s public schools Tuesday, but tense disagreements remain at the Capitol over what American history is, how it should be taught and who gets to decide.
The House Education Committee nixed House Bill 1231, sponsored by Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle), which would have cut funding to public schools that allowed the teaching of the 1619 Project curriculum. A collection of essays, photos and poems that first appeared in the New York Times in 2019, The 1619 Project considers slavery’s consequences and the contributions of Black Americans as central to our national history and identity. The corresponding 1619 Project curriculum pushes back against the whitewashed history many of us got in school, a version that glosses over or skips altogether the parts about early presidents and signers of the Constitution being slave owners. Its thesis is a rude awakening for anyone who never questioned the infallibility of the Founding Fathers.
“There’s nothing in this bill that says we can’t and shouldn’t teach Black history … but this is not the proper vehicle to do it,” Lowery said. Lowery said he’s OK with the way Black history is taught in our schools now. He named his bill the “Saving American History Act,” and in it he attacked the 1619 Project as being racially divisive and inaccurate. Lowery praised the Founding Fathers and seemed genuinely defensive about questions over their morals and motivations.
Opponents took offense at not only the bill’s title, but also its intentions. “We have seen some really mean-spirited bills. I feel personally that this is one of those mean-spirited bills,” said Kymara Seals, an organizer with Arkansas’s Public Policy Panel and a member of the NAACP. “One of the most concerning lines for me is line 12 of Section 5, ‘The 1619 Project is a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.’ ” Nonsense, Seals said. A Black woman who grew up in Hamburg, Seals learned American history the way most of us did, through a white, patriarchal perspective. When she got home from school, her mother, a teacher, gave her the rest of the story. Only by examining history from multiple viewpoints do students get a full picture and learn to think critically, she said.
Banning the 1619 Project in schools is kind of silly, considering that the internet exists, said TJ Medel, a Little Rock thespian and activist who gave his testimony in a spoken-word style. Students can access all kinds of viewpoints by just pulling out their phones, he pointed out. And ignoring the fundamental role slavery played in our nation’s founding will not change the facts. “HB 1231 is the bargaining stage of grief with slavery,” Medel said. “As a next-generation Arkansan, I don’t want to bargain with the truth. I want to accept it.”
Jack Clay, a high school senior from Bryant and the son of educators, told legislators that considering which accounts of history are on target and which are not is the whole game when it comes to social studies. “It’s not just, ‘Here’s what happened, and congratulations! You’re a historian,'” Clay said. Instead, comparing differing accounts of history told from different perspectives is what arms students with the capacity to think critically and come to their own truths.
Not all of the people who came to testify before the House Education Committee Tuesday opposed Lowery’s bill. At least two spoke up in support of it. Teacher Kylie Crosskno challenged the 1619 Project’s accuracy. And Iverson Jackson, a Black man, said the 1619 Project curriculum could further polarize an already tensely divided nation. He advocated for accentuating the positive instead. The experiences of Black Americans continue to change for the better, he said, pointing to the experiences of his father and daughter. “All three of us saw a very different America, but each generation is progressively better.”
Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key testified last, and in opposition. Decisions about how and what to teach are best left to teachers, school boards and administrators, he said.
Before the vote, representatives softened the blow for Lowery by explaining their reasoning for not voting in favor of HB 1231. For some, like Rep. Rick Beck (R-Center Ridge) and Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier), the 1619 Project was not their cup of tea, but they worried censoring a single source set a bad precedent.
“I come to the place where I’m sharing some of your concerns,” Meeks said. “But if we put out this fire today, what fire will we be putting out next week?”
Rep. Charlene Fite (R-Van Buren) and Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh (R-Van Buren), spoke up for trusting educators to know best how to do their jobs. Teachers interpret bills like this one as a show of no confidence in their ability to prepare their own curriculum, said Deffenbaugh, himself a former teacher.
Rep. Gayla McKenzie (R-Gravette) said many of the people who have called to ask her to vote against allowing the 1619 Project in our schools have not actually read the 1619 Project.
Even though all of the committee members except Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood) voted against his bill in a voice vote, many of the lawmakers thanked Lowery for making sure parents are aware of the 1619 curriculum lurking out there, waiting to arm students with a nonwhite, nonmale point of view.
Lowery said he’s also pulling his bill, HB 1218, which would punish public schools from teaching about social justice, gender issues and racial divisions, but that he’s considering a bill that would require parents to sign off before any lessons from the 1619 Project curriculum can be taught in their children’s classrooms.