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Lies My Alabama History Book Told Me, Part 3: The Great KKK Image Cleanup

by: countrycat

Wed Nov 28, 2012 at 10:11:56 AM CST

In the 1940s Alabama children learned that the KKK sometimes resorted to "night riding, intimidation, and whippings."  But there was no mention of those activities in the 1961 version of a popular Alabama history book.  Instead, the book reassures us, many Negroes actually supported the political goals of KKK leaders. Alabama History for Schools

This is the much-delayed part 3 of the series we began in February 2011.  The first two installments also focused on how Alabama history has been taught and how the story changed between the overall optimism of the 1941 textbook (Alabama, Past and Future) and more defiant tone of Alabama History for Schools.  

  • Part 1: Slavery as Social Security - Don't you wonder where some of the TEA Party "patriots" and holdover  States Rights' Dixiecrats get some of their unusual ideas about both the  Constitution and the causes of the Civil War?  Wonder no more.  A lot  of your fellow citizens (aged 50+)  learned it in their Alabama History books.
  • Part 2: Why Slavery Wasn't So Bad - The 1961 textbook, Alabama History for Schools depicts  slavery in Alabama as a system that really wasn't so bad - at least for  the most part because cruel laws regarding education, property  ownership, etc. were on the books, but not always enforced.

I had planned to discuss the causes of the Civil War in this installment, but just couldn't resist touching on the KKK and the "Knights of the White Camellia."

Both movements, the books explain, came about as part of widespread disgust with the corruption and excesses of Reconstruction - and the changing relationship between the races.

Alabama past and presentFrom page 125 of "Alabama, Past & Future:" 

At first under General John Pope, and later under General Meade, the radicals sent agents into Alabama to make Alabama safe for the Republican party.  Although the Negroes generally had been loyal to their masters during the war, these Republican agents, some of them working for the Freedmen's Bureau, an agency of the War Department, and some of them working for the Loyal League, both really radical propaganda agencies, made fantastic promises to the Negroes and tried to stir up bad feelings toward the whites.

Because, of course, that whole slavery thing was just all in good fun, right?  No need to hold a grudge or anything, y'all.

Have no fear, kids!  In a three-step process, Southerners "regained control of their own government."  From page 126:

First, the carpetbaggers and the scalawags ang the Negroes began to fall out with each other, quarreling over the spoils. [...]  Second, the people in the north began to tire of hearing about the "the Southern question," meaning "outrage stories from the South."  Third, the most important reason for the restoration of white control was known as the White Man's Movement.  The most spectacular phase of this, [...] was the Ku Klux movement.

Yes, you read that right.  The Ku Klux "movement" was "spectacular." 

Learn why on the flip....


countrycat :: Lies My Alabama History Book Told Me, Part 3: The Great KKK Image Cleanup

The 1941 text describes the organizations and is clear about their methods and how the community perceived their power.  From page 126:

The Ku Klux movement included a number of secret organizations of which the Ku Klux was the best known, and of which the Knights of White Camellia were the most numerous. [...] In general, the Ku Klux was the organization of north Alabama and Tennessee, and the Knights of the White Camellia was the organization of south Alabama and of Louisiana.  In any case, the purpose of all these organizations was much the same.  Night riding, intimidation, and whippings were sometimes resorted to, but the very names of the organizations sufficient to improve the behavior of many wrongdoers.

um... if these shadowy groups were running around intimidating and whipping citizens, exactly whose behavior needed "improving?"

The Ku Klux movement eventually disbanded for several reasons.  First, there grew up the false klans, groups of men who used the robes of these organizations to rob and to revenge personal spites.

Nice to know the KKK was so assiduous in guarding their good name and reputation, isn't it?

Second, the spectacular methods of the Ku Klux furnished ammunition for propaganda for the radicals to use to convince the voters in the North that they should send soldiers into the South.

There's that word again: spectacular.

Third, more effective means of restoring white rule were found in the later work of the White Man's Movement.  These were unspectacular but effective methods of political cooperation...

Their "unspectacular" crowning achievement?  The 1901 Alabama Constitution that plagues us even today. 

Ok.  Now let's fast forward (assuming that's even possible in Alabama) to 1961, a scant 20 years later.  Somehow, a textbook written during Alabama's days of infamy as ground zero of the Civil Rights Movement manages to gloss over the role of the KKK and other domestic terrorist organizations.

While the 1941 text spent several of its 400 pages discussing the "spectacular" efforts of the Klan, Alabama History for Schools totally disses the role of the night riders.  They get just a few paragraphs.  From page 344:

There were also many smaller organizations which had no formal connections with either the Ku Klux or the Knights, but the purposes of all were similar.

And those were?  I guess with only 644 pages in the book, there just wasn't room to describe them.

The Ku Klux movement should not be confused with the organization after World War I which borrowed its name and its methods for different purposes.

What were those methods again?  oops... no space available!

The Ku Klux of Reconstruction days was not anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, or anti-foreign.  It was anti-Radical.

The most important reason for the ending of the Ku Klux movement was that a better method of combating Radicals was discovered in the one-party system.  Men, who before the war had been Whigs, Democrats, Know Nothings, Secessionists, and Anti-Secessionists all banded together as Conservative Democrats.  Many Negroes supported them.

Define "many," please.  Yikes... there's that space problem again...  And hey!  Looks like membership in the early Klan was open to Catholics, Jews, and foreigners.  Wonder how many joined?

Notice that the 1961 text (both books were written by the same author, Charles Grayson Summersell), deleted any sort of description of the "methods" of the KKK and how "spectacular" they were.

Rewriting history.... one of the world's oldest sports.

In Part 4 - which I promise won't take a year to write - we'll find out more about the state got saddled with our 1901 Constitution.   Here's a hint:  according to the "history books," it's all the "Negroes" fault....

Oh, and hats off to Mark Kelly at Weld for Birmingham.  Quite independently of our LIA series, he found an old Alabama history book and was as horrified as I was.

Tattered Pages of Checkered History

..I was struck by the thought of how many of Alabama’s white children of  that era had their minds warped by a system that was supposed to be  fulfilling the higher mission of education — that is, inculcating a  notion of the broadness and fullness of the world and providing students  with the intellectual grounding to function as productive members of  the human enterprise. Instead, we got a generation of white kids who  were urged to think about how neat it would have been to grow up the  scion of a slave owner.

Yep. And we're still fighting that battle today.


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Lucky me! I grew up as an Air Force brat (4.00 / 2)
and didn't get exposed to Alabama history until my freshman year in high school, when Daddy was sent to Thailand, and then again in my senior year, when Daddy retired.  The factual differences that were taught were amazing.  My speaking up to argue the historical factswith my "yankee" accent was not appreciated.

Fair enough (4.00 / 3)
But isn't 1961 a bit far back? I'd be really interested in hearing about damage that's still being done. What are our textbooks like today in Alabama?

I've never seen an Alabama history book, old or new (4.00 / 1)

But my impression is that school textbooks are much more standardized today than they were 50 years ago.  And as the largest purchasers, California and Texas have a huge say in what's included in the books. 

As an extra, added bonus, I've heard they don't even teach Alabama history anymore, a darned shame as we've all heard those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it -- something Alabama has been doing for too long.

Work harder and work smarter!

[ Parent ]
The book I had in the mid 1970's (4.00 / 1)

was "Alabama: Mounds to Missiles" and I remember very little about it.  In 9th grade, we did one semester of Alabama history and one semester of civics.  I remember a lot more of the civics.

But I vividly recall a whole year of Alabama history in 4th grade.  The book we used (can't remember the title) was every bit as egregious as these here.  There was an entire chapter on the heroism of Nathan Bedford Forrest with no mention of his, ahem, other activities.

As to what they're learning now - if anything! - that's an excellent point!  I'll try to get more info on that.

But it's also, IMO, very important to look at what people were taught decades ago because those same people are out voting right now.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."  - John Kenneth Galbraith

[ Parent ]
I was (4.00 / 2)
in the 4th grad in 1959-60 and the 8th in 1963-64. We had Alabama history in both years. I don't remember the text for 4th but I'm sure we used the 1961 edition for 8th. However, my education about the KKK and others came from my family's participation in the desegregation efforts of the Mobile public schools. The main opposing force at the time was the White Citizen's Council and they were not above calling people in the movement and making rather bald threats of violence. I considered them KKK with suits.

The White Citizens Council ... (4.00 / 1)

It WAS the KKK with suits.

In response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation, white segregationists throughout the South created the White Citizens’ Councils (WCC). These local groups typically drew a more middle and upper class membership than the Ku Klux Klan and, in addition to using violence and intimidation to counter civil rights goals, they sought to economically and socially oppress blacks. Martin Luther King faced WCC attacks as soon as the Montgomery bus boycott, began and was a target of these groups throughout his career.

In January 1956, a month after the start of the boycott, W. A. Gayle, the mayor of Montgomery, joined the WCC, publicly declaring, ‘‘I think every right-thinking white person in Montgomery, Alabama and the South should do the same. We must make certain that Negroes are not allowed to force their demands on us.…’’ (Azbell, ‘‘Council Official Says’’). By the next month WCC membership had doubled. The WCC attempted multiple strategies to stop the boycott, from prosecuting the boycott organizers to pressuring insurance agencies throughout the South to cancel policies for church-owned vehicles. King appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to investigate violence perpetrated by WCC members after Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) members’ homes were bombed, and an effigy of a black man and a white man ‘‘who ‘talked integration’’’ were hung in downtown Montgomery (Papers 3:357). The attorney general responded to King’s appeal, writing that ‘‘the activities of the White Citizens Council … [do] not appear to indicate violations of federal criminal statutes’’ (Papers 3:365).

In a 1956 New York speech, King described the WCC as a modern Ku Klux Klan, targeting black and white people supportive of civil rights. ‘‘They must be held responsible for all of the terror, the mob rule, and brutal murders that have encompassed the South over the last several years,’’ King said.


Work harder and work smarter!

[ Parent ]
Thanks, mooncat... (4.00 / 2)
I don't remember seeing that info. It was only about 1961 or '62 at about 12 years old that I became political aware; right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. My parents sent me to Indian Springs School for high school and I found out many years later that my safety was one of their major concerns.

[ Parent ]
Sad (0.00 / 0)
Schools became battlegrounds.  It still makes me sad to think of it. 

Work harder and work smarter!

[ Parent ]
cherry-picked references and arcane terminology (0.00 / 0)

Seems like we’ve had this discussion before. Having been trained as a scientist, I am loath to construct theories and then find facts to fit the theories. Uncle Charlie’s (Dr. Summersell’s) textbook was first published more than 60 years ago. Conflating the current benefits of the Social Security program with words that were drafted so long ago misleads your readers. Same problem with assuming a particular connotation of the word "spectacular".

Real problems with education in Alabama and the concurrent lack of critical thinking have many more dynamic sources than moldering textbooks. The accepted mythology of the current culture despises anything resembling facts, whether historical, logical, or scientific doesn’t seem to matter. This mythology claims that: (1) Children must be entertained and bombarded with media in order to engage their attention; relevance is unimportant. (2) The “No Child Left Behind Act” ensures that all children, not just the white middle class, receive a high-quality education; teaching to skew test statistics is valid - the kids will figure it out. (3) Cultivated ignorance (what Thomas Aquinas called ignorantia affectata) is necessary to demonstrate faith in our religion and our country. (4) etc.

I’m sorry people were exposed to warped cultural values as young students. However, some of us grow up and investigate available primary sources for ourselves. I no longer believe the myths of Columbus' discovery of America or the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving. If the Alabama school systems provide textbooks claiming that these myths are facts, navel-gazing a pet theory of the persistence of racism is only part of the problem.

I'm sure it's important (0.00 / 0)

to defend your family and I'd also be loathe to think that a beloved relative of mine held these opinions - or worse - didn't believe this stuff but wrote it anyway.

But I didn't "conflate modern Social Security" with anything.  The book's author did.  I merely quoted his work.  It's there in "black and white" - if you'll excuse the phrase.

And that mindset isn't too far from the modern GOP/TEA Party meme that we don't need social services because "churches and families" would take care of all that if government would just "get out of the way." 

As to "spectacular...."  Well, that's also a quote.

From Dictionary.com:


[spek-tak-yuh-ler]  adjective
1. of or like a spectacle; marked by or given to an impressive, large-scale display.
2. dramatically daring or thrilling: a spectacular dive from a cliff.
3. a single television production featuring well-known performers and characterized by elaborate sets, costumes, staging, etc. Compare special (  def 13 ) .
4. an impressive, large-scale display: another Hollywood spectacular.
Did "spectacular" perhaps have a different meaning in the 1940s?

For a self-professed scientist, it's a bit odd how you seem to be the only one here jumping through hoops to look at anything but the textual evidence contained in the textbooks as a basis for the commentary.  Again, I understand the pull of family, but text of the books and the storyline is pretty darn clear.

This was the language and the story of the segregated South and it was taught to people who are still voting, running for office, and running off at the mouth about public policy.

For example... this bit from the first post on the topic:

I can't help but think of this text when I read about right wing and TEA Party efforts to gain control of state textbook committees and "modify" textbooks.  In Tennessee, they're pretty direct about their goal:

"We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government."
Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

 Now, we do all agree that it's important to look at facts, analyze them, and draw our own conclusion.  Kudos to all who "grew up to investigate" and that's certainly the goal.  But the point that I thought I made pretty clearly here is that a lot of people do not investigate and have not investigated since they were exposed to these textbooks.  That's the first paragraph in the first post on this topic, after all.

And it's why the fights over textbook content are so bitter and have such a long term impact.

And Part 4 of this series is indeed coming soon....

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."  - John Kenneth Galbraith

[ Parent ]
defending family? (0.00 / 0)
Not... Even though Dr. Summersell's books were progressive for the time they were written, they certainly are not part of progressive thinking now. IMO -- (1) The school system kept them in the classroom long past a reasonable shelf life. (2) Defining the fuel of current expressions of racism simplistically, as a book that kids probably avoided as avidly as most 4th and 5th graders would for today's textbooks, is awfully simplistic ... something like pointing to the "Dick and Jane" readers of that time as the source of gender bias. (3) We still sugar-coat the facts of life for children, with the presumption that "they can't understand". How else do we justify that classroom biology avoids any discussion of the existence of hermaphroditic or extra-chromosome babies, cementing the heterosexual standard in their psyches.



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