When the State Board of Education debated new social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools in 2009-10, tea partyers and other far-right activists complained about what they saw as an overemphasis on slavery in classes about U.S. history. They argued that attention paid to the history of slavery in America is too negative and that students should learn more about how Americans overcame that dark period of our nation’s history. (One activist even complained more broadly about an “overrepresentation of minorities” in social studies standards.)
But the truth is too many of those far-right activists are either ignorant about the history of slavery or would prefer to rewrite and whitewash that history. Just see what Jim DeMint, head of the far-right Heritage Foundation, said on a conservative religious radio program this month during a discussion about how the institution of slavery came to an end in the United States (emphasis added):
“Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.”
That’s completely ridiculous and yet another example of how the right twists and distorts history to promote an ideological agenda — in this case the almost blind hatred of government.
It is certainly true that slavery offended (with absolutely good reason) the conscience of many Americans. But that had been the case for decades without seriously threatening the legal institution of slavery in the South. The fact is slavery ended because of the actions of “big government” — among them: the Federal Government’s raising of huge armies and naval forces (and all of the fiscal and other actions required to do so) during the Civil War, President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Government isn’t the solution to every problem. But sometimes the nation’s challenges are so great that addressing them requires government to act. This was true not just for ending slavery, but also for other great crises, such as responding to economic collapse during the Great Depression, ending racial segregation and protecting the country from foreign enemies and natural disasters.
DeMint’s laughable argument should serve as a reminder of the challenge we face this year as the State Board of Education considers the adoption of new social studies textbooks for Texas schools. Far-right board members and pressure groups will try to rewrite and censor textbook discussions of slavery, civil rights and a host of other topics they find threatening to their rigidly ideological perspectives. And they’ll do so regardless of how much scholars and other experts point out that they’re ignoring facts and true history. In many ways, the battle ahead in Texas this year will be even bigger than the fight over evolution and climate change in last year’s science textbooks.