TWISTED SOURCES: How Confederate propaganda ended up in the South’s schoolbooks

From the article: Mildred Lewis Rutherford (left), C. Irvine Walker (center), and Julian Carr (right) were prominent members of a committee created in 1919 that brought together the three big Confederate heritage associations to promote the Lost Cause version of American history through textbooks. (Rutherford and Carr photos via Wikipedia; Walker photo via

This blog post discusses how neoconfederate heritage lies instead of history received prominence in America’s southern schools in the years since the Civil War. It begins by asking, “Where does it come from, the ignorance that has been on display of late? In the college-age photos of white men, now elected officials, in blackface? In the simulated Klan lynchings for yearbook laughs? In mischaracterizations of black slaves as “indentured servants?” In the denials that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War?”

The answer: “One answer is: from the 69,706,756. That’s how many students were enrolled in the South’s public elementary and secondary schools between 1889, when the government began counting students, and 1969, the height of the segregationist Jim Crow era, according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics. There they were subjected to the alternative reality of the Lost Cause, a false version of U.S. history developed in response to Reconstruction that minimizes slavery’s central role in the Civil War, promotes the Confederacy’s aim as a heroic one, glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and portrays the white South as the victim.”

The post continues, “The poisonous Lost Cause lessons were taught to multiple generations of Southerners to uphold institutionalized white supremacy — in part through public school curriculums shaped by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). More famous these days for their controversial Confederate monuments, the UDC had an almost singular focus on making sure the Lost Cause propaganda was so ingrained in the minds of Southern youth that it would be perpetual. Their most effective tool? School textbooks.” We learn also, “The UDC’s propaganda campaign utilized other tools to be sure. In 1932 alone, the North Carolina Division placed 183 portraits of Confederate figures in the state’s public schools, along with 206 Confederate flags. The following year, it was 865 flags. The UDC, with schools’ permission, also conducted essay contests on topics like ‘The Origin of the Ku Klux Klan’ and ‘The Right of Secession.’ Submissions were routinely in the thousands. But the UDC’s primary focus was on insuring that Southern schools used only those history books loyal to the Lost Cause.”

The prime mover, of course, was Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the so-called “Historian General” of the UDC. Of course, “historian” was anything but what she was. Propagandist, liar, deceiver, and enemy of the truth are more accurate labels for this woman. “An officer in the national UDC for years, Rutherford served as the group’s historian from 1911 to 1916. Her decades of popular, pro-Confederate writing brought her to national prominence, and she was also well known for serving up speeches that emphasized the victimization of the white South by the North, defended slavery, and praised the Ku Klux Klan.”

Additionally, “Another prominent member of the committee was Julian S. Carr, the former Confederate general and North Carolina industrialist. He’s now infamous for his 1913 speech at the dedication of the UDC’s ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate veterans monument formerly on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill in which he urged support for white supremacy and called it a ‘pleasing duty’ to horsewhip a ‘Negro wench’ for allegedly publicly insulting a ‘Southern lady.’ The man who served as the committee’s chair for a number of years was C. Irvine Walker of South Carolina, also a former Confederate general. He was known for spearheading the reopening of the Citadel, the South’s premier military academy, which was closed after the Civil War. ‘During the days of Negro domination in South Carolina, I knew it would be hopeless to attempt the resuscitation,’ he wrote in the ‘Memorandum of Gen. C. Irvine Walker of His Work Concerning the Reopening of the Citadel,’ now housed in the school’s archives. ‘But when the state was returned to the control of its own citizens, the white people of South Carolina, I felt that the time had come to move, and I started the movement, which ended in success.’ Irvine was also a leader in the Carolina Rifle Club, a group that offered itself as an alternative to the Ku Klux Klan, which Irvine had joined but personally found ‘too cumbersome and liable to be abused,’ as he wrote in his 1869 book titled after the club itself. The purpose of the Rifle Club, he said, was to combat ‘the greatest social crime of all the ages — the sudden emancipation of four million of African slaves wholly incapable of freedom.’ According to Irvine: ‘That the South was partially saved from the terrible results which were to be expected from this sudden emancipation of four millions of negro slaves, her people are and ever will be indebted, first, to the civilizing and humanizing influences of the institution of negro slavery as it had existed in the Southern States from the days of the Colonies down to 1865, second, to the innate superiority and naturally dominating power of the white race, third, in the absence of the quality of savage ferocity in the negro race in the South, induced by generations of humane training by his white masters and mistresses, and to the kindness and loyalty felt and manifested by the former slave to his white friends in the South and, mainly, to the courage and endurance of Southern white women and the manliness and patience of Southern white men.’ These were the people who would guide history education for generations of Southerners.”

The post next traces the development of this big lie. “In 1919, the Rutherford Committee published the 23-page pamphlet ‘A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges and Libraries.‘ Written by Mildred Lewis Rutherford herself, it was the committee’s set of standards for what was acceptable in a history textbook — the Lost Cause mythology distilled into accessible bullet points and blurbs, backed by cherry-picked quotes from professors, politicians, newspapers, and period speeches. The national UDC immediately embraced ‘Measuring Rod,’ as did the state divisions. The UDC now had not only a simple set of rules for textbooks but also a distillation of Lost Cause ideology in a format easy for the general public to digest. In 1920, Rutherford followed ‘The Measuring Rod’ with a 114-page book titled ‘Truths of History,‘ in which she expanded the content of ‘The Measuring Rod’ by adding more perceived wrongs levied upon the South by the North. This time, though, she specifically called out textbooks that offended the UDC by name. It was a blacklist, and it had an immediate effect as state divisions launched campaigns to ban books. The book banning effort built on the earlier work pioneered by Daughters like Mrs. Helen De Berniere Wills, the longtime chair of the North Carolina Division’s textbook committee. De Berniere Wills had pushed local her local UDC chapters to aggressively engage their local schools systems and promote the books they liked and fight those they didn’t. By 1905, at the annual North Carolina Division convention, De Berniere Wills announced that local school superintendents across the state had assured her that no textbooks offensive to the UDC were being used. School systems in Asheville, Charlotte, Mooresville, and Statesville, as well as Alamance, Cumberland, Orange, and Pender counties, had gone about ‘purifying the schools from objectionable books,’ she said. De Berniere Wills also announced that J.Y. Joyner, the state superintendent of public instruction, wrote to her assuring his support of her efforts to purge textbooks that were offensive to the UDC, and that Dr. Alexander Graham, Charlotte’s superintendent of schools, promised that his teachers would ‘correct orally, errors that are to be found in many text-books, such as do injustice to the South.’ By 1906, North Carolina had a newly created state textbook commission which largely took selection away from local boards. The UDC now needed to lobby only one governmental agency to carry out its propaganda mission. Using its considerable political clout, the North Carolina Division also secured Gov. Robert B. Glenn’s assurances that he would appoint only Lost Cause loyalists to the new textbook commission. By 1916, the Division itself was reviewing history textbooks and sending their written reviews, approvals, and rejections directly to the state textbook commission.”

North Carolina was but one example. “This was business as usual in the Southern states when it came to public schools choosing history textbooks. For example, both Mississippi and Texas actively partnered with the UDC and UCV to choose textbooks. And, it was not unusual for UDC members to actually be appointed to the state textbook commissions. The UDC divisions in North Carolina and Texas both had members appointed to their respective state textbook commissions at various times. Many state commissions also allowed UDC members to attend their deliberative meetings to promote or criticize books. The bottom line for national book publishers was they had decisions to make if they wanted to sell books to Southern schools. Go all in with Lost Cause dogma and be able to sell the book only in the South? Or have two versions of the same book — one with carefully worded, watered-down history for the South, and another one with historical facts for everyone else? The latter was often the choice. This also meant that books covering only state history tended to have a local author, a local publisher — and a stronger Lost Cause bias.”

The blog post contains much more information and plenty of detail. I highly suggest reading the entire post. It’s terrific and shows how confederate heritage lies took over southern schools because of dishonest people and spineless officials.

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