By Dara Lind
Texas public schools spread American history over two years of instruction, with eighth-grade history closing out the school year with Reconstruction and high-school U.S. history picking up in 1877. In the hands of the power-mad, revisionist-zealot Texas Board of Education, the division creates some pretty revealing inconsistencies in how students are supposed to be taught to view certain things. The most glaring example of this, to my mind, is the way the respective curricula treat direct action and civil disobedience.
Here’s a requirement from the eighth-grade curriculum, under “Citizenship”:
The student is expected to…analyze reasons for and the impact of selected examples of civil disobedience in U.S. history such as the Boston Tea Party and Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay a tax.
Yes, it’s hilarious that the curriculum glosses over the fact that Thoreau wasn’t objecting to taxation in general, but to the use of his tax money to pay for an unnecessary war. (I doubt the Texas BoE shares Thoreau’s conviction that the Mexican War was a petty, imperialistic victory for slavery, of course.) And yes, it’s obvious that conservatives’ newfound love for “civil disobedience,” as represented by the original Boston Tea Party, is a transparent attempt to persuade themselves that there’s a higher purpose to today’s Tea Parties than shouting things, waving signs and electing Scott Brown. But I’m still glad that students are being taught that direct action and civil disobedience can serve an important purpose in pushing for accomplishing social and political change. After all, if they think civil disobedience was so important in the mid-nineteenth century, they’ll surely return to the theme when talking about the mid-twentieth century, right?
Wrong. Here’s the high-school curriculum:
Students are expected to…analyze the effectiveness of the approach taken by some civil rights groups such as the Black Panthers versus the philosophically persuasive tone of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
Those are your options. No Montgomery bus boycott. No sit-ins. Just the Black Panthers — who weren’t even founded until 1966 and didn’t have a significant national presence until ’68 — or King, who gets credit for his pretty words but no mention of how he ended up writing a letter from a jail cell in Birmingham to begin with. The implication is clear: the civil rights movement was effective because of the “persuasive tone” of its more conciliatory orators, not because thousands of people rode buses and boycotted buses and got blasted with fire hoses.
The message the Texas BoE is sending is clear: direct action is a civic duty when white people do it, but nonwhite activists need to sit tight and let their leaders do the talking. (A less charitable interpretation is that direct action by nonwhites is just one step away from Black Panther militancy.) But that’s so obvious it’s barely worth remarking on. What I find much more interesting is how completely this gives the lie to an argument I’ve heard in conversation from some conservatives and libertarians in the wake of the Rand Paul mishigas: that private discrimination in the South would have collapsed without federal intervention due to the free market and “societal pressure.” The people making this argument, like the Texas BoE, often end up laying credit for the gains African-Americans made in the civil-rights era squarely at Martin Luther King’s feet — or rather, at his footnotes, because they laud King the orator and ignore King the organizer.They’re eager to claim that social movements are capable of winning hearts and minds when the alternative is legislation, but they ignore the way social movements actually work, and the hard work (and direct action) it takes to get somebody to listen to your pretty words. They ignore it because they’re squeamish about it.
The fact of the matter is that organized social movements, and the actions they undertake, don’t generally win hearts and minds. Civil disobedience and direct action — even marching! — are likely to galvanize the opposition, making them feel defensive and victimized. The Texas BoE’s civil-rights revisionism is evidence of this: they’re not actually comfortable with the tactics that get used to call attention to the need for change. Furthermore, these tactics don’t even generally win sympathy from people who are truly neutral on the issue. What it does is call injustice to the attention of people who are sensitive to injustice in theory, but insulated from it in practice — especially political elites who can then take up the task of rectifying the injustice. Social movements can’t work as an alternative to legislation, only as a complement to it. Civil disobedience is only a vehicle for political change, rather than a principled act of bravado, when the law actually gets changed.
Of course, I’m hardly losing sleep over the fact that Texas is teaching students how to be lousy activists. If the state succeeds in indoctrinating them with the rest of the curriculum, they probably wouldn’t be mobilizing for anything I’d want. But it would be nice if the conservatives who have discovered a new love of protests and expressive politics thanks to the tea partiers understood the true value of social action.