The Zinn Education Project, the journal Rethinking Schools, and Black Lives Matter at School are organizing “A Day of Action: Educators Pledge to Teach the Truth” on Saturday June 12 to protest state legislation, either already passed or in the works, that prohibits teachers from addressing racism and other forms of oppression in the history of the United States.
In the Sunday June 6, 2021 Opinion section of the New York Times, Tom Hanks, an American cultural institution if there is one, wrote that when he was a middle school and high school student in Oakland, California during the 1960s, “I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa, Okla. My experience was common: History was mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out . . . Nor, I have learned since, was anti-Black violence on large and small scales, especially between the end of Reconstruction and the victories of the civil rights movement; there was nothing on the Slocum massacre of Black residents in by an all-white mob in 1910 or the Red Summer of white supremacist terrorism in 1919. Many students like me were told that the lynching of Black Americans was tragic but not that these public murders were commonplace and often lauded by local papers and law enforcement.”
At least fifteen states are considering rightwing America First legislation in response to the New York Times 1619 Project. Recently passed laws in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee effectively ban teachers from discussing racism in their classes. The Tennessee bill would penalize school districts if teachers connect either historical or contemporary events to white privilege, institutional racism, or unconscious bias. An Arizona bill, would fine teachers $5,000 for promoting one side of a controversial issue. Missouri, Legislation introduced in Missouri would ban the use of the 1619 Project, Learning for Justice Curriculum of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Zinn Education Project. Many of these laws are reminiscent of the Tennessee Butler Act that outlawed the teaching of evolution or questioning the biblical account of creation and led to the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. That debacle is immortalized in the play and movie “Inherit the Wind.”
Teach the Truth activists are also asking teachers to sign a pledge: “We the undersigned educators will not be bullied. We will continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems. We are for truth-telling and uplifting the power of organizing and solidarity that move us toward a more just society.”
High school history Teacher Erin Chisholm of Glendale Arizona posted on the Zinn Education Project website: “The truth is worth more than the $5,000 fine the State of Arizona wants to slap on me if I allow my students to become critical thinkers. Students need to see themselves in our nation’s history. Sometimes that history is uncomfortable, but acknowledging this serves to support culturally sensitive teaching.”
Elementary school teacher Kumar Sathy of Hillsborough, North Carolina posted: “I want to be on the right side of history. Future generations will talk about this moment, the way legislators and extremist white supremacy groups used fear-mongering and conspiracy theories to stop teachers from teaching the truth. I want it to be known that I was one of countless educators nationwide who taught kids to identify, understand, and work to end racism, sexism, white supremacy culture, and the silencing of marginalized voices from our curricula. Teaching the truth does not mean teaching kids to hate America. It is teaching them that we all play a role in helping our country become a more perfect union.”
Ericka Alfaro, a middle school social studies teacher from Elizabeth, New Jersey posted: “Students deserve to see themselves in the history they learn, as they continue to rewrite it and to add their own narratives.”
Evan O'Connell, a high school government and history teacher from Queens, New York posted: “We must continue to work to dismantle white supremacy in our nation. Teaching and learning the truth about its past is one tool toward that end.”
Teachers across the country will organize rallies at historical sites across the country that symbolize or reflect history that teachers would be required to lie about or omit if these bills become law. Too much about the history of slavery and racism and their continuing impact on American society has been written out of the curriculum so young people have no idea why racism remains a major problem in the United States.
Face-to-face and virtual events are planned in Muncie, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; San Rafael, California; Frisco, Texas; Columbia, South Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; Charlottesville, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Peekskill, New York; Ogden, Utah; Youngstown, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; Washington, D.C.; and many more locations. Details are listed on the Zinn Education Project website.
Possible sites in the New York metropolitan area could include the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, the location of the Wall Street slave market at Wall Street and Water Street, the area that was Seneca Village in Central Park, Sandy Ground in Staten Island, 227 Duffield Street in Brooklyn, which is being preserved as a possible Underground Railroad stop, and the central plaza in MetroTech, which was the site of the New Year’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation celebration. In Queens, John Bowne High School is named after the farmer who supported the abolition of slavery and Francis Lewis High School is named after the signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a slaveholder and slave trader. In the Bronx, Van Cortlandt Park is named after a large slaveholding family. Phillips Manor in Westchester, Lloyd’s Manor in Suffolk County, and Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island were slave plantations. Thousands of Africans Americans were buried at Saint Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon. Foster Memorial AME Zion Church in Tarrytown was a refuge for fugitive slaves. At Old Bethpage Village in Nassau County, the Schenck and Hewlett families owned enslaved Africans and the Powells were Quakers and abolitionists.
Tom Hanks conclude his essay with an appeal to teachers. “Should our schools now teach the truth about Tulsa? Yes, and they should also stop the battle to whitewash curriculums to avoid discomfort for students. America’s history is messy but knowing that makes us a wiser and stronger people. 1921 is the truth, a portal to our shared, paradoxical history. An American Black Wall Street was not allowed to exist, was burned to ashes; more than 20 years later, World War II was won despite institutionalized racial segregation; more than 20 years after that, the Apollo missions put 12 men on the moon while others were struggling to vote, and the publishing of the Pentagon Papers showed the extent of our elected officials’ willingness to systemically lie to us. Each of these lessons chronicles our quest to live up to the promise of our land, to tell truths that, in America, are meant to be held as self-evident.”
If you organize a Teach the Truth Event event, you can list it with “A Day of Action.”
Follow Alan Singer on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.
Comments are closed on this story.