(RNS) — As students head back to school this week, Florida students are in for big changes. Claiming to support “parental rights” and wishing to “build great families,” the state’s Board of Education approved a new K-12 social studies curriculum that suggests that slavery had “personal benefit” for enslaved people and crediting white men primarily with liberating them.
We should not be surprised that conservative Christian activists on the board, including those appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis, voted in these changes. History education has long been a target of white Christian nationalists inside and outside schools, and schools have long been instruments for those intent on shaping our ideas about American identity and solidifying white Christian power in a country that is no longer majority white and Christian.
After the Civil War, white Christians in the South refashioned the theology that had justified slavery into the Lost Cause. They recast defeated Confederates as noble patriots, while depicting African Americans as too immature to carry out the duties of citizenship. They used faith to suggest that the natural order had been upset. In 1876, the Rev. Benjamin Palmer, a Presbyterian minister in New Orleans, wrote that “involuntary servitude” was God’s way of protecting society from “the monotony of equality.”
The inventors of the Lost Cause also invented new histories that suited their white supremacist views, which dominated history textbooks, classrooms and pulpits across the U.S. from the 1890s through the 1960s, only unraveling through decades of civil rights activism.
Florida’s new history standards echo these lies, teaching children debunked ideas such as the notion that enslaved people benefited from their lot. This benevolent paternalism reinforced Palmer’s idea that white men should wield power to govern others for their own good and the good of all. White Christians saw paternalism as Christian doctrine because it aligned with New Testament instructions for slaves to obey masters and wives to obey husbands. Paternalism claimed that, just as slavery had been good for enslaved people, so, too, was Jim Crow segregation, which dictated that only white men should vote.
At the start of the 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention — convened to disenfranchise Black men — Methodist Bishop Charles Galloway prayed that “the heritage of virtue and liberty” of Mississippi’s past slaveholding leaders would supply “courage,” “statesmanship” and “patriotic citizenship” for the delegates — all but one of whom were white. As the convention settled on poll taxes and literacy tests to limit Black voting rights, they paused for a day of prayer in local white churches to ask God’s blessing on their new constitution.
Mississippi thus became a model for disenfranchisement across the South until the 1965 Voting Rights Act overturned its measures. Even then, Christian white supremacists argued that white male political control was best for Black citizens.
A key part of creating segregation was to discount the power wielded by free Black communities. After emancipation, African Americans built churches that housed schools, community meetings and voter education. In 1872, the African Methodist Episcopal Church met in Nashville and urged Congress to pass pending civil rights legislation so that “every citizen of this republic shall be secure in … all rights in all of the states, irrespective of race.” Lest Congress underestimate the voting power of “the largest body of Christians of the African race in the country,” they warned that the “influence and energies” of their nearly 400,000 members would support the political party “which shall guarantee to our race those sacred rights.”
White Christians denounced Black Christians’ defense of their rights as manipulation by Northern white politicians. Lost Cause history books removed all evidence of Black self-determination.
Florida’s new guidelines also remove African Americans from history. Middle school students will learn about “figures who strove to abolish the institution of slavery” — all of whom are white men. The Reconstruction figures whom the curriculum highlights are all white men, with the lone exception of Frederick Douglass. Naming white leaders as the most important people shaping African American freedom and self-determination undermines not only the vibrant history of Black communities, but their very fight for autonomy.
Most perniciously, perhaps, Florida’s new social studies standards whitewash white violence against Black communities, just as the Lost Cause histories did.
In the late 1800s, white leaders framed violence by the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs as appropriate responses to actions by African Americans. In 1875, Mississippi’s statewide election was notorious for white mob violence against would-be Black voters. When the federal government refused requests from Black communities for help, white supremacist candidates unsurprisingly won.
On the Sunday after the election, the Rev. John Jones, a Methodist minister and former enslaver, preached a sermon praising the election results as “our victory” for which his congregants should praise God. The horrifying violence was portrayed as merely work for a righteous cause.
Today, white supremacist violence is not justified in itself, but children will be taught that both sides can be blamed for massacres of Black citizens with the claim that both sides acted violently. For instance Florida’s teachers will be called on to present the 1921 Tulsa Massacre as “violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.” In fact in Tulsa, as in too many other places, white mobs destroyed Black lives, homes and businesses with impunity. A judge recently rejected claims of the last living Tulsa survivors for restitution.
In making changes in K-12 and higher education, Florida officials have followed the lead of Hillsdale College’s new K-12 1776 Curriculum. But these false ideas have garnered widespread approval for generations.
We should all be no less alarmed that they are reemerging now. It took decades of activism growing out of the Civil Rights Movement to expose the false premises of these invented narratives. All of us — parents, voters, educators and citizens at large — must commit to learning more about our nation’s history ourselves and pushing for our schools to teach truthful histories to school children. We cannot allow such dangerous histories to become accepted once again.
(Elizabeth Jemison is an associate professor of religion at Clemson University and author of “Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)