If We Knew Our History Series - Articles that puncture myths and stereotypes | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

The Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” series features articles by teachers, journalists, and scholars that highlight inadequacies in the history textbooks published by giant corporations and that too often find their way into our classrooms. Articles in this series puncture myths and stereotypes. But they also discuss why it is so important that our students have access to a richer “people’s history” that questions inequality and highlights efforts to create a more just society. Our premise is that if we knew our history, the world would be a better place.

Coretta Scott King (R) with Women Strike for Peace founder Dagmar Wilson, 1963 | Zinn Education Project

W. E. B. Du Bois to Malcolm X: The Untold History of the Movement to Ban the Bomb

By Vincent Intondi
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. announced his strong opposition to the war in Vietnam, the media attacked him for straying outside of his civil rights mandate. In so many words, powerful interests told him: “Mind your own business.” In fact, African American leaders have long been concerned with broad issues of peace and justice—and have especially opposed nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this activism is left out of mainstream corporate-produced history textbooks.
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Preaching and Farming at Mission Delores by Anton Refregier | Zinn Education Project

Lying to Children About the California Missions and the Indians

By Deborah A. Miranda
In California schools, students come up against the “Mission Unit” in 4th grade, reinforcing the same lies those children have been breathing in most of their lives. Part of California’s history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the educational system and impossible to avoid, a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology to which 4th graders have little if any resistance.
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Ten Things You Should Know About Selma Before You See the Film

By Emilye Crosby
In this 50th anniversary year of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act it helped inspire, national media will focus on the iconic images of “Bloody Sunday,” the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the interracial marchers, and President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. This version of history, emphasizing a top-down narrative and isolated events, reinforces the master narrative that civil rights activists describe as “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white folks came south to save the day.”

Here are 10 points to keep in mind about Selma’s civil rights history.
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The Koch Brothers Sneak into School: How Right-wing Billionaires Seek to Shape the Social Studies Curriculum

How Right-wing Billionaires Seek to Shape the Social Studies Curriculum

By Bill Bigelow
This month in Boston, thousands of teachers will gather for the annual National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference. Two non-teachers will be there, too: Charles and David Koch, the notorious right-wing billionaires.

Well, the Kochs won’t be there in person, but they will be represented by a Koch-funded and controlled organization: the Arlington, Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute.
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Guns and the Southern Freedom Struggle: What’s Missing When We Teach About Nonviolence

By Charles E. Cobb Jr.
The best way to understand this Mississippi movement episode is...as a story of organizers and the communities they were embedding themselves in during the Freedom Movement of the 1960s. Within this organizing experience, guns in the hands of supporters sometimes existed in tension with the nonviolence usually used to define movement philosophy and practice, but that more often existed in tandem with nonviolence. In other words, something more complex was at play.
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Bombed out cars by Jo Freeman | Zinn Education Project

‘Is This America?’: Sharecroppers Challenged Mississippi Apartheid, LBJ, and the Nation

By Julian Hipkins III and Deborah Menkart
Fannie Lou Hamer gripped the nation with her televised testimony of being forced from her home and brutally beaten (suffering permanent kidney damage) for attempting to exercise her constitutional right to vote.

“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings?” she asked the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
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The Forgotten Fight Against Fascism

By William Loren Katz
Anyone who has gone through school in the United States knows that history textbooks devote a lot of attention to the so-called “Good War”: World War II. A typical textbook, Holt McDougal’s The Americans, includes 61 pages covering the buildup to World War II and the war itself. Today’s texts acknowledge “blemishes” like the internment of Japanese Americans, but the texts either ignore or gloss over the fact that for almost a decade, during the earliest fascist invasions of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Western democracies encouraged rather than fought Hitler and Mussolini, and sometimes gave them material aid.
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A People’s History of Muslims in the United States (Article) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

A People’s History of Muslims in the United States: What Textbooks and the Media Miss

By Alison Kysia
When I teach history related to Islam or Muslims in the United States, I begin by asking students what names they associate with these terms. The list is consistent year after year: Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Muhammad Ali.

All of these individuals have affected U.S. history in significant ways. If we take a step back and look at the messages these figures communicate about Muslims in U.S. history, we see a story dominated by men and by the Nation of Islam. Although important, focusing solely on these stories leaves us with a skewed view of Muslims in U.S. history. Even these examples are a stretch. Most of my students reference 9/11 as the first time they heard of Muslims.
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White House Black History | Zinn Education Project

Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved

By Clarence Lusane
Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations — George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children’s books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies’ gowns and White House furnishings.

Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery.
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Grenada education poster| Zinn Education Project

Grenada: ‘A Lovely Little War’

By Bill Bigelow
Anti-bullying curricula are the rage these days. But as teachers endeavor to build a culture of civility among young people in school, the official history curriculum they are provided often celebrates, or at least excuses, bullying among nations. Well, at least when the United States is the bully.

A good example is the U.S. invasion of Grenada—Operation Urgent Fury, as it was called by the Reagan administration—launched exactly 30 years ago this week, on Oct. 25, 1983. Grenada made an unlikely target of U.S. military might. Its main product was not oil but nutmeg. Its naval fleet consisted of about 10 fishing trawlers. Grenada’s population of 110,000 was smaller than Peoria, Illinois. At the time of the invasion, there was not a single stoplight in the entire country. So what put Grenada in the crosshairs of the Reagan administration?
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March on Washington | Zinn Education Project

Claiming and Teaching the 1963 March on Washington

By Bill Fletcher Jr.
August 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Publicly associated with Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, this march brought more than 250,000 people to the nation’s capital. The day went down in history as a powerful show of force against Jim Crow segregation. Over time this great event has risen to levels of near mythology. The powerful speech by Dr. King, replayed, in part, for us every January on Martin Luther King Day, has eclipsed all else—so much so that too many people believe that the March on Washington was entirely the work of Dr. King. It is also barely remembered that the March on Washington was for freedom and jobs.
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Mitch Daniels and academic freedom cartoon | Zinn Education Project

Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch-hunt

By Bill Bigelow
Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”
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Pentagon Papers collage | Zinn Education Project

Camouflaging the Vietnam War: How Textbooks Continue to Keep the Pentagon Papers a Secret

By Bill Bigelow
In the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, Daniel Ellsberg, who secretly copied and then released the Pentagon Papers, offers a catalog of presidential lying about the U.S. role in Vietnam: Truman lied. Eisenhower lied. Kennedy lied. Johnson “lied and lied and lied.” Nixon lied.

Ellsberg concludes: “The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations. As I say, it’s a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived that they had to be lied to; it’s no tribute to us that it was so easy to fool the public.”

In June of 1971, Ellsberg surrendered to federal authorities at Post Office Square in Boston. Forty-two years later, few of the historical secrets that Ellsberg revealed—especially those that focus on the immediate post-World War II origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—appear in the school curriculum.
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Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession

By Linda Christensen
The author describes teaching about racist patterns of displacement and wealth inequality through the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31—June 1, 1921 in Greenwood, a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In fact, the term itself implies that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others.
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Abolition/Earth Day | Zinn Education Project

An Earth Day Message: Take Heart from the Abolition Movement

By Bill Bigelow
Imagine for a moment that it is 1858 and you are an abolitionist. Talk about discouragement: The previous year, in its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no black person—whether enslaved or free—was entitled to become a U.S. citizen. A few years before, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which vastly expanded the U.S. government’s authority to seize and return to slavery individuals who had fled to freedom—or even those blacks born free in the North. Many Northern blacks crossed into Canada rather than live in constant fear.

And abolitionists were waging not just a moral struggle against the enslavement of human beings. Slavery was the largest industry in the United States, worth more than all the factories, banks, and railroads combined. In effect, the abolition movement aimed to expropriate without compensation the wealth of the most powerful social class in the country.
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Ten Years After: How Not to Teach About the Iraq War

By Bill Bigelow
In 2006, with U.S. troops occupying Iraq, the great historian and humanitarian Howard Zinn expressed his desire for the end of the war: “My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race.”

At least in a formal sense, our country’s memories of war are to be found in school history textbooks. Exactly a decade after the U.S. invasion, those texts are indeed sending “messages” to young people about the meaning of the U.S. war in Iraq. But they are not the messages of peace that Howard Zinn proposed. Not even close.
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Stripmining Black History Month

In “Stripmining Black History Month,” Jeff Biggers writes that “the neglect and degradation of a region and its history have always mirrored the neglect and abuse of the land.” And there is no more abused land in the United States than Appalachia, where coal companies continue to scrape away mountains to get at the thin coal seams buried within. The coal companies call everything that is not coal, “overburden”—streams, trees, animals, plants. Surely history itself is also a burden for the coal companies, because if we knew our history, we would know the rich legacy of activism that has characterized Appalachia—activism that does not conform to the whitewashed ignorant “hillbilly” stereotypes that the rich and powerful have found so convenient to promote.
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American History Lessons

The original idea for the Zinn Education Project’s “If We Knew Our History” column grew out of our reading “American History Lessons,” by Melissa Harris-Perry in The Nation magazine. Harris-Perry’s article, reproduced here, is a meditation about the role of Black History Month.

She argues that we suffer from a “national deficit of historical knowledge” and that this deficit has contemporary political consequences. If we knew our history, she suggests, people would be less likely to follow the bigots who patch together historical symbols and soundbites to justify their right wing nostrums. And if we knew our history, we’d be more likely to appreciate and defend the accomplishments of social movements.
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Coal Kills by Paul Anderson | Zinn Education Project

The Poison We Never Talk About in School

By Bill Bigelow
The most dangerous substance in the world is barely mentioned in the school curriculum. Coal.

According to the International Energy Agency, burning coal creates more greenhouse gases than any other source—including oil. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and arguably the world’s foremost climatologist, has called coal “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on the planet.”

And, as 350.org founder Bill McKibben pointed out recently in a remarkable article in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” from a mathematical standpoint, it is demonstrably impossible to prevent the climate from spinning out of control with unimaginably horrible consequences, if we burn the fossil fuels that energy corporations are in the process of exploiting and selling.
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