With almost half of all students in the United States attending a school whose educators have been given educational gag orders to prohibit them from teaching honestly about the history of systemic racism, a grassroots network of educators, parents, and students across the country are organizing a #TeachTruth National Day of Action on June 10, 2023, to fight back.
Research from the CRT Forward Tracking Project out of the UCLA Law School reveals that measures attacking truthful teaching about race have been passed at either the federal, state, or local level in every state except Vermont — laws that impact “over 22 million public school children, almost half of the country’s 50.8 million public school students.”
The impact of these anti-history laws is difficult to overstate. In Iowa, high school teacher Greg Wickenkamp asked his superintendent, “Knowing that I should stick to the facts, and knowing that to say ‘slavery was wrong,’ that’s not a fact, that’s a stance, is it acceptable for me to teach students that slavery was wrong?” Instead of giving the only morally acceptable answer—”Yes! Slavery was wrong” — Noll replied: “We had people that were slaves within our state. We’re not supposed to say to [students], ‘How does that make you feel?’ We can’t — or, ‘Does that make you feel bad?’ We’re not to do that part of it.”
Wickenkamp described another attack on an Iowa educator that highlights that the worst attacks have been perpetrated against women of color: “I had a colleague who was a Latina teacher. She was pushed out because of hostile treatment. The strain and hostility she faced was much worse than anything I faced. I don’t know if she’ll return to teaching or not, but she was the first generation in her family to go to college — her case is markedly more challenging because of systemic factors.”
Experiences such as those in Iowa have been all too common around the country as attacks on truthful teaching about race, gender, and sexuality are being used as a campaign strategy for the Republican Party. Chris Guerrieri, a 22-year veteran teacher from Duval County, Florida, explained to local media, “An admin of the district recently told the media specialist that if you’re teaching slavery, make sure you’re teaching the positive sides of it as well.”
Another educator — in Florida, where a bill was recently passed to make it a third-degree felony (carrying up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine) to be caught with verboten books on race, gender, or sexuality — responded to a survey by the Zinn Education Project (ZEP), saying, “I’m terrified to say anything about enslavement because it might make students ‘uncomfortable.’ I also can’t recommend ANY books because a parent might not like it and then I could be charged with a felony.”
Another spoke to the way these laws are discouraging many educators from engaging in antiracist lessons: “It is creating a chilling effect on education. We continue to teach the truth, but with much less certainty what the consequences will be for doing so.” As of June 2022, The Washington Post had identified at least 160 educators who lost their job or resigned because they taught about race or LGBTQ+ issues — and there are undoubtedly scores more charged with violating anti-truth laws who have been pushed out of the classroom that have gone unreported.
Faced with this assault on the truth, educators around the country are turning the world into their classroom on June 10 and defying the billionaires funding the attack on antiracist education with public pedagogy at an array of creative events. In Lansing, Michigan, organizers are gathering at the corner where Earl Little — father of Malcolm X — was almost certainly lynched by being thrown in front of a streetcar. They’re walking to the hospital where he died to deliver banned children’s books to the kids in their care. Along the way, they plan to chalk the sidewalks with historical information about the Black Freedom Struggle.
In Boston, the Ethnic Studies Organizing Committee is meeting at the former headquarters of the city’s Black Panther Party chapter to help educate people about history that often gets left out of corporate textbooks.
In New York City, there are multiple gatherings, including one at the Stonewall Inn, where legendary Black transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson helped lead a rebellion against a police raid that became the inspiration for the annual Pride demonstrations around the country.
“At Stonewall, we will discuss what took place within those historic walls in 1969, and what action we can take to support LGBTQIA+ rights today,” organizers wrote. “We will share stories about LGBTQIA+ history that often go overlooked.”
In Stone Mountain, Georgia, the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, and other groups are organizing a rally at Stone Mountain Park, site of the largest Confederate monument in the world. The engraving on the side of Stone Mountain depicts Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
Organizers will read aloud the picture book, “That Flag” (by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith), a story about two young girls — one Black, one white — whose friendship is tested when the white girl’s family displays the Confederate flag and they learn the truth about its racist history.
In Harmony, Mississippi, organizers are planning an event to highlight the rich contributions to the Black Freedom Struggle that people from their town have made. During the summer of 1964, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a Freedom School site in the Harmony community.
The Teach Truth Day of Action events respond to right-wing attacks that have deep roots. During the late 1940s and 50s, the second Red Scare (characterized by the attacks led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others on anyone they wanted to discredit by labeling them communists) was accompanied by the Lavender Scare — the repression of LGBTQ+ people and their mass firing from government service. The combination of the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare led to the firing of thousands of teachers around the country.
Just as the Red Scare and Lavender Scare were used to purge teachers and prohibit discussion of social and racial justice in school, the attacks on what history deniers have labeled “critical race theory” and “gender ideology” are used today to fire educators and exclude discussions about structural racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia.
We now live in an era defined by the rise of anti-truth and anti-history laws. The outlawing of an honest education represents a sharp turn toward authoritarianism in the United States — what historian Barbara Ransby has called proto-fascism — where now almost half of students are subjected to some form of banning of the truth about systemic racism and oppression.
The goal of these laws is to deny young people access to the lessons of history that could aid in building struggles against inequity.
History is a human right. The struggle for social justice is many things. However, especially in this era, it must include the recognition of the right to learn honest history — particularly about social movements that have challenged injustice. Without truthful accounts of history and the truthful transmission of that history to the next generations, young people are robbed of the first condition of a democratic society — access to the knowledge needed to shape the future.
You, too, can join the #TeachTruth National Day of Action on June 10. Find an event near you. Or, organize your own. An increasing number of communities refuse to repeat the scapegoating and paranoia of the McCarthy era; we won’t let them use race, gender, and sexuality to divide and conquer us.
Tyler Walker, a high school language arts teacher from Austin, Texas, drove this point home when he signed the Zinn Education Project’s “Pledge to Teach the Truth” and wrote “Students need to know the wonderful stories of the brave folks that fought against systems of oppression and sparked hope and solidarity for the creation of a freer, kinder world.”
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Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher in Seattle, an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, an organizer with Black Lives Matter at School, and serves on the leadership team of the Zinn Education Project. Jesse is the author of the forthcoming book from Haymarket Books, Teach Truth: The Attack on Critical Race Theory and the Struggle for Antiracist Education, and the co-editor of the books, Teaching for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter at School, and Teachers Unions and Social Justice. You can connect with Jesse on Twitter, @jessedhagopian, or IG, @jessehagopian.