More than 700 miles from where I sit in Mississippi’s capital city, once the power center of U.S. white-supremacist strategy, white people in Kansas don’t want young adults to learn about the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. In Goddard, Kan., a 90%-plus white western suburb of Wichita, leaders just decided that the award-winning nonfiction book “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group” must be pulled from library shelves in the Goddard School District.
Young adults reading a book that explains the origins of the Klan in Pulaski, Tenn., and how it became a white-terrorist “Invisible Empire” under Nathan Bedford Forrest, is unacceptable in white suburbs in Kansas, we learn. They don’t think teenagers can handle the truth about past white terrorist and vigilante groups burning schools and killing and beating teachers here in Mississippi and beyond to stop Black advancement, as I wrote about recently.
And I’m quite sure they don’t want students today to understand the purposeful roots of current inequities, division and (re)segregated schools in a nation where so many educational institutions are overwhelmingly one race or another, with the majority-white ones typically drawing the most resources.
Goddard’s White Purge
Goddard is also censoring books by Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Mississippi’s very own Angie Thomas (who is on our advisory board), and even plays by August Wilson. Like the well-funded and -planned censorship wave sweeping the nation, the Goddard white purge is yet another supposed anti-“CRT” salvo to stop Americans from learning about and from our own race history, warts and all.
It’s yet another campaign to rewrite our history and censor the difficult parts out of classrooms, just as first Mississippi State University President Stephen D. Lee helped lead more than a century ago. Lee’s censorship efforts targeted books and educators to solidify widespread mythology about the Confederacy and the “lost cause” into place, as well as supported Jim Crow discrimination laws to limit Black education, voting and advancement for decades.
These 21st-century book-banners seem to think minors, even those in their teens, aren’t old enough to handle historic truth about the systemic racism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny that have kept power centered largely in a small percentage of wealthy, white male hands of various political persuasions.
They ignore that young people have experienced the effects of these bigotries and adult power plays from very early ages. Think of men and women spitting on 6-year-old Ruby Bridges and calling her and her mother the n-word after she enrolled in a public elementary school 61 years ago yesterday in New Orleans.
When exactly is too young to start thinking about ways to change these deplorable old habits and beliefs in our society?
There is so much here to fight to overcome, not to mention celebrate the victories, beyond obsessing over white people today looking bad because of what white people in the past did. It looks much worse to deny actual history, trust me, and many of these children will be embarrassed later that their parents were part of a nationwide censorship effort to deny them basic facts about American and Mississippi history.
My experience working and interacting with young people is that they want to talk about things they observe and the ways people, especially adults, treat each other. Several years back, a teacher at Northwest Rankin Elementary School asked me to talk to third-graders about journalism. At first, I fielded questions about whether I had ever covered a murder or a big fire—fire trucks were a big deal in that classroom—as I tried to avoid the kinds of remarks I make to older folks about the need to cover full history and systemic inequities in our work.
Then, a little white girl raised her hand and schooled me. She told the diverse class a story about seeing (in a movie, I believe) a grown-up white man angrily push a little Black girl away from a water fountain. The image was clearly seared into her memory just as my seeing a Black man lynched in a movie as a child helped direct the course of my life.
The fidgeting stopped, and every child was rapt as the little white girl quietly told the story, and I then tried to talk about journalism’s responsibility to address this past in response in language that made sense for them. I told them that telling stories like she did is a way to bring people together and unite them against the mean, “prejudiced” people in the world. I told them there were heroes of all races, including white, we should know about. I encouraged them to talk about their own experiences with each other.
Honestly, it felt like the kind of chat a good Sunday School class should be having.
Don’t Worry, Be Oblivious
Similarly, Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” which Goddard is censoring, is a wonderful book for young adults—of all races. I couldn’t put it down when I read it while at a writing residency in New York, wishing I’d had that book to read when I was back at Neshoba Central in the 1970s. It is a compelling and important story, filled with joy, pain, tragedy, humor, hope—and, yes, stories about young people of various races coming together to face social injustice and police violence against Black kids. That is a reality, like it or not.
It is also a way for sheltered white students to see that their own assumptions about other people are often incorrect or limited.
I suspect all these politicians out to bolster white-supremacist power and get the meanest primary voters, maybe even somebody who pushed a little girl away from a water fountain once, would be appalled that the third-grader talked about the water fountain or that a Black Jackson-raised student at Belhaven University can write about division with such grace, clarity and wit. They seem to be taking the least thoughtful approach possible—don’t talk about it, and it never happened. Don’t worry, be happy. White people never did anything wrong, other than a handful of rednecks everyone now disowns.
That is a lie, of course.
This history happened, and we still suffer the effects today as, I repeat, 700 miles from Mississippi, white folks are scared for their teenagers to learn about the Tennessee origins and true motives of the Ku Klux Klan. Even among all this censorship hysteria, and terror over suffering white guilt for what other white people did in the past, this one is astounding. I can’t even unpack the absurdity of censoring a book about the Klan, for God’s sake—unless your people were in it.
Using, Supporting the Tools of Truth
All this is to say that the white-supremacist efforts to censor real American history right now are extremely alarming and a real threat to our democracy and freedom in this nation. As USA Today reports, it is a strategic effort and well-funded power play to keep inequality and inequity embedded into our society and systems—and keep young people ignorant about our real history. We all must use the tools of truth at our disposal to counter the effort at dishonestly, because it is happening nationwide. This goes far beyond politics into basic humanity and truth.
The way the Mississippi Free Press counters this intensely disturbing effort to rewrite history to make white folks comfortable and unbothered is through telling the difficult historic stories ourselves. We are unpacking hidden history right here in our own state, and showing their connections to other states far from the South. Our systemic reporting is giving Americans and journalists across the country vital context and clues to ask questions like “how did the KKK affect Black education in Kansas?”—and readers are responding dramatically as we help fill historic voids.
This anti-”CRT” censorship campaign makes our work more important than ever for the state and the nation. As always, we need your help to share and grow it. We appreciate each of you for reading, sharing, evangelizing and giving to the Mississippi Free Press.
We have immense work to do for our state, nation and democracy, and we are here to do it.
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This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.