Next year the students of Texas—about 5 million of them in the public schools—will start using history textbooks that are aligned to new state standards that list slavery as the third most significant cause of the Civil War, the Washington Post reports.
Confederate flags on the graves of unknown Union soldiers (iStock)
The Texas school board adopted social studies standards in 2010 that list the causes of the Civil War as “sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery,” in that order, writes national education reporter Emma Brown.
Slavery was a “side issue to the Civil War,” the Post quotes Pat Hardy, a Republican board member, as saying at the time of adoption. “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”
Sure, the main right the 11 states that seceded were looking to protect was slavery, but people in Mr Hardy’s camp recast that as simply the right for a state to declare it legal for white people to buy and own black people. It’s very difficult for me to argue with this logic, ultimately circular as it may be. But no matter how many causes and effects you can put in between slavery and the Civil War, slavery still comes out as the main cause of the war.
It is reassuring, as Ms Brown writes, that many teachers in Texas recast the debate by saying, “Some people believe that disputes over states’ rights were the main cause of the Civil War, and here’s why they believe that.” This is nothing more than preparing students to do well on the state-mandated test in history, but kids seem to get it. And that’s because good teachers rely on primary source documents instead of textbooks.
Before the Internet, textbooks ruled, but today, kids can find, say, Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession, signed in 1861, within a few seconds. It reads, from the beginning:
In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
… It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.
It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.
It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.
It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.
It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.
Imagine that: political and social equality for black people. Such a horrible idea! the state of Mississippi implied. Some things we may never get right. You may read some parts of this text as suggesting that commerce and the right of states to set their own prices for certain crops grown in southern states catapulted those states into war. Fine, but even the economic argument eventually comes back to slavery in the source document itself.
The futile attempt in 2010 on the part of the Texas Board of Education to censor history should be corrected, not because I’m worried about what students in Texas are learning but because I fear for boards of education losing their much-needed authority. Fortunately for the 5 million public schoolchildren in the state, the board’s political statement is completely inconsequential and sent the board spiraling into a state of irrelevancy unparalleled in our history.
And that’s a shame: school boards need to play a vital role in our communities and in our children’s lives. Whatever board members may believe, however strong their convictions are in those beliefs, if those beliefs are irreconcilable with facts like the historical documents of the US, then their beliefs are wrong.
A demonstration in Baltimore on July 4, which may be just as futile in the end, had people play dead inside some chalk marks on the sidewalk to protest the unfair treatment of blacks by police and other authorities, as reported in the Baltimore Sun. “We’re celebrating Independence Day, and really, the majority of our country is not free,” the Sun quoted Rose Kalala, a Towson University student, as saying about the shallow statement the Sun’s writer claimed was “art.”
“We want follow-through,” the paper quoted Naomi Pitcairn, one of the protest’s organizers, as saying. “It’s not over until those people have been convicted,” she said, referring to the Baltimore police officers who have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
We would not condone presuming guilt, but these words speak to a frustration on the part of blacks. As I boarded the light rail in Baltimore City this afternoon, I sat in the seat in front of a black woman wearing some sort of headdress and carrying several grocery bags. Based on her words and actions, I concluded she was just as frustrated about racism as the people in Baltimore on Independence Day.
“You invading my space; I hate all y’all,” she said aloud, but I had no idea who the object of her commentary might have been or if she was, perhaps, talking on the phone. Then she made a remark using at least four expletives that can’t be printed, referring to my skin color, my age, the style of my hair, and my erectile dysfunction. “You a threat to my physical safety,” she said a little louder.
I moved to another seat, glad that she wasn’t armed and couldn’t shoot me under some form of “stand your ground” law. This needs to end: white people are not racist in general, and spewing hateful comments into the air on a light rail train shows why we can’t work toward solutions to the problem. We prefer, for some reason only God or the devil may know, to curse the darkness instead of lighting a simple candle.