Jonathon Harris, then-student body president at Clarksdale High School, approached his school’s administrators with a request brought to him by many of his fellow Black students: they wanted a Black history week assembly program at their school.
But Clarksdale’s principal refused the request — and then suspended Harris and several other Black students after they held their own Black history celebration in the school’s gymnasium anyway.
According to the federal complaint filed in 1973 by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) on behalf of Harris and other Black Clarksdale students, the principal allegedly said he was withholding permission for the Black history week assembly because he believed the event would be divisive. “In his view, white students of the school would oppose such a program thereby creating ‘disruption and dissension’ in the student body,” the complaint says.
Disruption did unfold — but it was of the kind that is currently erupting in school boards and state legislatures across the United States, in the form of coordinated local conflicts and policy maneuvers to suppress discussions about racism and race.
Clarksdale’s principal walked into the gym where Black students had gathered and demanded they end the Black history assembly immediately. His order was soon enforced, as every single police officer in the city of Clarksdale arrived to disperse the student gathering, including those who were off-duty — and even the city’s police dog.
The students were cleared out of the gym, and the school slapped them with suspensions. Later, Clarksdale’s nearly all-white Board of Trustees would expel Jonathon Harris.
Although the Supreme Court had formally struck school segregation from the law almost two decades before this event, it would take LDF’s litigation for Harris to be reinstated in school and for annual Black history commemorations to be allowed at Clarksdale High.
The concerted effort to impede racial justice in America through Orwellian measures banning, censoring, and otherwise suppressing conversations about race we see metastasizing today are the latest examples of a pattern observable throughout American history.
This is the pattern: whenever there is discernable — or even simply perceived — progress towards full citizenship for Black people in the United States, a virulent backlash ensues. This backlash, which inevitably manifests as the threat or reality of violence, has also frequently been enacted through the law.
Following the massive, multiracial protests for racial justice in 2020, during which droves of Americans not only took to the streets, but also eagerly sought literature to better understand the role of systemic racism in the United States, a mass of legislative measures banning books and limiting conversations about race emerged. This swift, politically-driven backlash to the public’s growing interest in the continuing quest for progress has only increased since the first installment of this series unpacking the phenomenon.
According to an analysis from PEN America, at least 10 states have a truth ban law in effect as of January 2022. Meanwhile, over 100 additional educational gag order bills are, as of this writing, slated for consideration in more than 30 states. Increasingly, the proposed bans seek to impose lawmakers’ restrictions on speech not only in K-12 public classrooms, but also on discussions in higher education institutions, state agencies, business entities that receive state funding or contracts, and even organizations that benefit from state-tax exemptions or have nonprofit status.
The penalties proposed by legislators for violating these censorship edicts continue to escalate, too. Along with the threat of rescinding state funds, truth bans like those proposed in Alaska and Florida would mandate the firing of teachers who discuss prohibited concepts and enable private citizens to sue individuals who they suspect of “wokeness.”
This is the pattern: Whenever there is discernable — or even simply perceived — progress towards full citizenship for Black people in the United States, a virulent backlash ensues. This backlash, which inevitably manifests as the threat or reality of violence, has also frequently been enacted through the law.
As history illustrates time and again, the effort to use the might of the government to silence conversations about the complicated history of the United States is not new. Any high schooler who has learned about McCarthyism and the “red scare” of the 1950s could easily find parallels within their own classrooms today. Indeed, when teachers report feeling “terrified” to teach topics and texts related to race, gender, and systemic racism — when politicians are suggesting that merely discussing these issues is divisive, potentially illegal, and even “unpatriotic” — the echoes of McCarthyism are overwhelming.
In reality, one of the most patriotic acts we can take is to intentionally shape a more perfect union for future generations of Americans. This constant striving to realize our nation’s most cherished ideals — freedom, justice, and equality for all — necessitates a truthful assessment of the lessons of the past. It also means listening to the voices and stories of communities that have historically been sidelined and buried. But the individuals pushing to suppress and sanitize America’s history appear resistant to the idea that a more perfect union can or even should be shaped, especially when it comes to dismantling the racial injustices that remain.
For example, when explaining the impetus behind an anti-Critical Race Theory bill he proposed, Alabama State Representative Ed Oliver said in a recent radio interview, “I always look back at the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that was landmark legislation which you would’ve thought would have created a level playing field for all folks in this country. It apparently wasn’t good enough.”
This invocation of the Civil Rights Act is especially revelatory, given that the hard-won legislation, secured after years of bloody battles and the murder of several of its lead proponents, marks just one of the many efforts to address the systemic oppression of Black people enshrined in the laws of America at its founding — and reinforced afterward. As readers of the New York Times’ popular 1619 Project know, that oppression began with the enslavement of Africans taken to American shores and forced to labor for its enrichment. But the legacy of that most explicit and inhumane manifestation of anti-Black racism in America has resounded across this society since then in various forms — and often most virulently when there are indications that the public tide is moving against the persisting stain of bigotry.
The same playbook followed when the federal government began protecting the constitutional rights of the formerly enslaved in the aftermath of the Civil War and with the passage of the 14th amendment in 1866. The Reconstruction era, though brief, previewed the likelihood of full citizenship for the formerly enslaved in America — an outrageous prospect for those who viewed Black people as inferior. As such, a concerted and deliberate promulgation of racist ideologies and violence to subjugate Black people soon erupted. In the long winter of retrenchment that followed, segregation and anti-Blackness were ruthlessly re-institutionalized through Jim Crow laws that explicitly codified Black Americans to second-class citizenship and remained in place for nearly a century afterward, underscoring how racism that is embedded into societal systems and structures has enduring reach. Moreover, terroristic spates of lynching also unfolded across the nation, minstrelsy and racist caricatures spread exponentially, and the manipulation of educational lessons about race emerged as a key strategy to entrench ideas of white supremacy.
In the South, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) launched a campaign beginning in the early 1900s as part of the backlash to Reconstruction to promote a revisionist telling of the Civil War that downplayed the horrors and evils of slavery, while falsely glorifying the Confederacy as a last redoubt of a supposedly better, pre-industrial age. The UDC flooded public schools in the South with history textbooks written from the deliberately warped and white supremacist perspective that the war was rooted in northern states’ aggression against the economic rights of southern slave owners. Instead of depicting these slaveholders as the eager proponents of racist terror that they were, this narrative suggested they were benevolent to the Black people they dehumanized, brutalized, exploited, assaulted, and killed. The role of Black people’s labor in the South’s flourishing economy was minimized or outright erased in these school texts. The UDC successfully shaped school curricula in service of this narrative, and untold numbers of students were taught well into the 20th century that institutionalized racism was justified.
The formal ending of school segregation in 1954, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, were again events toward racial progress that also resulted in pushback – and this included efforts to impede Black students’ access to quality public education and to limit the inclusion of Black history in public school curricula. Alongside the physical backlash to school integration directed at Black students like Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, and LDF clients who had to brave racist mobs to attend newly-desegregated public universities, there were also more subtle efforts to keep Black students out of formerly white-only schools.
In 1972, LDF published a report on the national phenomenon of “Black Student Pushouts,” detailing the alarming racial disparities that were persisting in education, even though segregation had legally ended a decade before. Speaking with a focus group of Black students, administrators, and advocates from across the country, LDF identified that the prevalence of strictly white-oriented curricula contributed to the alarming number of Black students being pushed out of integrated schools. “Courses do not meet the needs of Black students,” the report noted. In cases where Black students vocally advocated for more inclusive curricula, they were swiftly punished like the Black history week student advocates were at Clarksdale High. For example, in Holt v. Tift Board of Education (1972), LDF represented 40 Black students at a newly-integrated rural high school in Georgia who had been suspended and expelled for holding a silent vigil to advocate for Black history lessons.
In reality, one of the most patriotic acts we can take is to intentionally work to shape a more perfect union for future generations of Americans. This constant striving for the realization of our nation’s most cherished ideals — freedom, justice, and equality for all — necessitates a truthful assessment of the lessons of the past.
Unsurprisingly, Georgia, like many other former members of the Confederacy, is among the wave of states today proposing laws to constrain conversations about race in America’s schools. Georgia’s HB88, if passed, would go as far as to prohibit students from talking about public policy in class. Not coincidentally, Georgia has historically been the site of many pivotal events in the multi-generational movement for civil rights, a characteristic it shares with many of the states now considering laws to limit classroom discussions about race. And in the 21st century, Georgia remains a critical piece in understanding the ongoing story of how racism is institutionalized in the United States.
As these many examples illustrate, throughout American history, the law has been repeatedly leveraged to limit Black people’s education and freedom of expression — and it’s a pattern that emerges on the heels of every movement towards racial progress. Today is no different.
What is also unchanged, though, is that the people targeted by this frequently wielded weapon of suppression have just as regularly responded to it with resilience. History shows that Black people – and their allies across races, religions, and gender — have never been effectively silenced. We the people will always put up a robust defense of our rights: to express our voices at the ballot box, to freely tell the stories of our lived experiences and of those who came before us, and to protect the right of everyone to learn the full story of Black people’s indispensable contribution to the continual making of America.
The first installment of LDF’s original content series examines the attacks on ‘Critical Race Theory’ and efforts to ban books as the latest tactics to halt racial justice.
The third installment explains why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen.
The word “woke” has been a signal urging Black people to be aware of the systems that harm and otherwise put us at a disadvantage since the 1920s. Now, it has been co-opted and maligned. Our latest Original Content piece explores how the term “woke” has been manipulated and maligned to hold back racial justice progress.
LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about Critical Race Theory. Learn more about CRT, laws banning racial justice discourse, and how these fit into a larger effort to suppress the voices, history, and political participation of Black Americans.
LDF is at the forefront of the fight to ensure that America lives up to the ideals of justice and equality for all. The right to free expression and the right to vote are cornerstones of our democracy. LDF and coalition partners are fighting back to protect truth.