Growing up in Arkansas, Jared Middleton remembers learning only the basic facts of events with heavy racial dynamics, such as the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
It wasn’t until George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 that Middleton, a high school special education teacher in Springdale, Arkansas, began to scrutinize history lessons that didn’t include multiple perspectives or discussions of lasting implications. He wants his own son to get “a more complete history” of how the nation was founded, he said.
Recognizing that schools have long ignored the history of people of color, many teachers have endeavored to incorporate lessons on topics ranging from the Tulsa race massacre to the Chinese Exclusion Act. But conservatives across the country are alarmed by how, exactly, teachers are adding nuance to discussions of race and racism in U.S. history classes. In Arkansas and more than a dozen other states, lawmakers have introduced or passed new laws to curtail or re-direct the tone of those lessons.
Now teachers are pushing back. On Saturday, groups in more than 22 cities are organizing rallies and other events to protest legislative efforts to restrict the scope of such conversations.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, said the organization is weighing legal action against laws restricting how racism and history are taught.
“And we’ll defend any teachers brought up on charges,” she said.
Culture wars: Fighting over history lessons
The events Saturday may include speeches or resemble a pop-up American history fair, Pringle said.
The National Education Association is supporting the effort. The lead organizer is the Zinn Education Project, an initiative of two liberal nonprofits, the Washington, D.C.-based Teaching for Change and Milwaukee-based Rethinking Schools. Black Lives Matter at School, a national coalition that advocates for racial justice in education, is also involved.
“Our children deserve to be taught authentic, connective histories,” said Tamara Anderson, a member of Black Lives Matter at School and an organizer of Saturday’s events in Philadelphia. “Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian and other people of color make up the fabric of what is actually America.”
Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would penalize schools that teach about the country’s racist and sexist past.
Similar battles are unfolding in other states.
Florida’s state Board of Education on Thursday put tougher guidelines on how public schools teach U.S. history. Critics chanted, “Allow teachers to teach the truth,” during the meeting, which forced a recess.
Teaching history: Florida standards call for more patriotism in lessons
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, recently signed a law that will ban schools from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex, among other provisions.
Michigan GOP leaders introduced legislation that would limit discussions of the lasting effect of race and racism in U.S. history. The bill would cut funding to schools where the curriculum includes material from The 1619 Project, a series of stories published in 2019 by The New York Times that examines the role of slavery in the country’s founding.
Bill sponsors and other conservatives claim more inclusive history education drifts from straight facts and into a radical model of race theory that unfairly makes white children feel bad about the legacy of their ancestors.