The push to keep students from learning about the profound role racism played in U.S. history is getting pushback this weekend from teachers across the country, including those in Arkansas.
Educators and supporters are invited to gather from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, June 12 at the Trail of Tears marker by the intersection of Old Wire Road/Highway 265 and Randall Wobbe Lane in Springdale. The Teach the Truth rally, as it’s called, is one of at least 23 events planned nationwide to protest lawmakers’ efforts to prune away takes on American history that don’t center the white male perspective.
High school teacher Jared Middleton organized the Springdale rally partly in response to bills proposed during the 2021 Arkansas legislative session. While most of the so-called “divisive concepts” bills didn’t pass, Middleton said Arkansas classrooms aren’t safe from efforts to downplay or hide altogether the oppression and suffering of people of color since before our nation’s founding.
Students deserve “real history, not the glossed over, whitewashed version,” Middleton said. “Ignoring historic facts will maintain today’s systems of oppression rather than help us create a more just and equitable world.”
Conservative lawmakers in Arkansas and in other red states joined forces to champion a national origin story that casts the founding fathers as wholesome, egalitarian superheroes to whose lofty ideals we should all aspire. Opponents argue that such a simplistic and sanitized version skips over the subjugation, violence and oppression non-white and non-male people suffered before, during and after the framers flounced around Philly in 1787.
This push to cement a historic narrative that centers on the white male experience and minimizes dark truths is part of a nationwide freakout by conservatives over critical race theory, a four-decades-old approach to understanding the ways society and institutions of past and present were designed to perpetuate a system that gives white people more than their fair share of power and resources. It’s not surprising, then, that Donald Trump and other beneficiaries of this unjust system are fighting to keep students from learning that we don’t all deserve what we get or get what we deserve.
Middleton pointed specifically to House Bill 1218 as a reason for Saturday’s rally. Ultimately withdrawn by the sponsor, HB 1218 was an effort by Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) to withhold money from public schools that allow classes, clubs or activities that promote “division between, resentment of, or social justice for a race; gender; political affiliation; social class; or particular class of people.” A similar bill by Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) passed into law, and bans “divisive concepts” on race and sex in trainings for state employees. Lowery also failed to close the deal on House Bill 1231, which would have blocked funding for any Arkansas public schools that taught curriculum based on the 1619 Project, The New York Times’ journalistic and historical exposition that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.”
Recent events suggest the 1619 Project’s core concepts are kryptonite for Southern white conservative men. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman finds himself in the news lately for pressuring UNC-Chapel Hill to keep 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones from being granted tenure. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is going on the offensive against the ideas in the 1619 Project by working up a copycat version called Project 1836, which aims to create a rootin’-tootin’ curriculum to promote patriotism and “increase awareness of the Texas values that continue to stimulate boundless prosperity across this state.”
Middleton said he’s not sure how many people will come out for the rally in Springdale Saturday, but that he will be ready with extra signs and chants.
“We’re just letting it be know that as educators, as allies and supporters of education, we will teach the truth. We won’t lie and we won’t be silent,” he said.
Middleton offered up the conventional wisdom on Christopher Columbus as an example of the lopsided history taught in many American classrooms. Lots of students learned that Columbus was primarily a hero, he said. But those students may not have learned that Columbus and his fellow explorers brought violence and disease that ultimately wiped out large numbers of indigenous people. Middleton wants students to learn the whole story, including the role racism played as European settlers swooped in.
The idea for rallies in Springdale and other places across the country hatched with the Zinn Education Project, a resource for teachers who want to help students explore history through the perspective of workers, women and people of color. This tie-in with historian Howard Zinn, author of “The People’s History of the United States,” brings up memories from 2017, when now retired state Rep. Kim Hendren (R-Gravette) tried unsuccessfully to ban any books by Zinn in Arkansas public schools. Hendren is the brother-in-law of Gov. Hutchinson and the father of two current Arkansas lawmakers, Sen. Jim Hendren, a freshly minted independent, and Rep. Gayla Hendren McKenzie, a Republican. The Zinn Education Project responded to Kim Hendren’s 2017 bill by offering free copies of Howard Zinn’s books to any Arkansas teachers who wanted them. At least 700 did.