Photo: Education Post
In the mid-1960s, in Orange County, California, a consortium of right-wing groups went to war against a textbook. Their ranks included concerned parents, right-wing members of educational societies, and members of the John Birch Society, a far-right extremist group that had risen in prominence by fearmongering about an internal Communist threat in the United States.
The textbook in question — “Land of the Free: A History of the United States” — was the work of three progressive historians in response to a 1963 call from the Congress of Racial Equality’s Berkeley chapter to teach more inclusive history in elementary schools. It was a time when the Civil War was almost exclusively taught as a “states’ rights” issue, a framing that elided or whitewashed the realities of slavery.
According to historian Elaine Lewinnek, who memorialized the controversy in a 2015 Pacific Historical Review article, “Land of the Free” sought to integrate the struggles and triumphs of minorities throughout U.S. history. Critically, it opened with an admission that the United States had not lived up to its purported ideals from the very beginning, excluding Black people, Native Americans and women from the franchise, and from representation in office for the vast majority of its existence.
Once the book became a mandatory part of the California state public school curriculum, the backlash from right-wing groups was swift and fierce.
One John Birch society representative told The New York Times that the book would give white schoolchildren “a guilt complex.” Hundreds of parents aired their grievances to California’s educational authorities, Lewinnek found, protesting at school board meetings. They denounced the book for “stirring up past injustices,” “overrepresenting” Black contributions to American history, and being “unpatriotic” and “communist.”
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