Texas Rewrites History

In the April 5, 2010 issue of “The Nation”, historian Eric Foner of Columbia University wrote about “Twisting History in Texas”. The “conservative-dominated Texas Board of Education,” he said, has made sweeping changes in how Texas students will be taught history. But Texas is schizophrenic. It combines profound progressive activism and attitudes along with stark conservatism. I’ll wager that given this, Texans will not let this conservative history in schools prevail for long.

Foner writes that, “…conservatives want students to come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of women who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. The do not think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality; other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions; federal economic regulation; or foreigners.”

This history is obviously not one to encourage the building of democratic institutions and freedom of expression among all sectors of the Texas population but rather offering proscribed roles.

Texas and its schizophrenia?

Texas allows its citizens to carry concealed guns. A few years ago while at a meeting in Texas I went to a bar for dinner. All patrons were required to submit their guns to the management while they were in the bar. I watched as patron after patron placed their guns on the counter. This was new for me. I’d not seen this before and then became paranoid of every Texan I saw for the remainder of the trip. This was likely the attitude they wanted to invoke in someone like me and they were successful. I did not feel safe. It seemed like the wild-west. I guess it was.

Then later at the airport as I waited for my plane I started talking with a couple of women who were from Texas. I asked them about their former governor, George Bush, who was then the President. I asked them if they were surprised at his archconservative positions on policies. One of the women was exceptionally nervous about speaking to me and left the table – she looked around to see if anyone even heard my question. It was explained to me that it was dangerous to criticize George Bush in Texas. I don’t know what the repercussions would be, but it was clear they were uncomfortable talking about him.

But then Texas wisely elected the progressive and populist Jim Hightower as their Agriculture Commissioner in 1982. A post he kept until 1991. Hightower said, however, that some of the larger farmers complained that he wasn’t interested in agriculture because he was only talking with small family farmers. It was the Texan schizophrenia yet again but also the expression of controlling corporate agribusiness! Hightower is famous for saying “We need to base our nation’s growth not on the Rockefellers, but on the little fellers, because if we do it will be based on genius and not greed”.

Who can forget the great and inspirational Black politician Barbara Jordan from Texas who in the 1960’s became the first Black Texas State Senator since 1883 and the first African American woman in that position. She later served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Hopefully the Texas Board of Education will mention Jordan with the accolades she is due.

Then there’s Austin, Texas with the University of Texas. A friend of mine who taught there for a while said “Heather, in Austin you can actually support the election of politicians on the left who will win.” I rare treat I must say.

No discussion about the University of Texas can be complete without referring to economics professor Ray Marshall who was President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Labor and is now professor emeritus. Marshall engaged in extensive studies on the economics of the rural south and how oppressed Blacks and poor whites might make strides economically. He thought that cooperatives were one for the best avenues for achieving some equity in the face of the concentrated wealth in rural southern communities and racial oppression. In the 1990’s I interviewed Marshall. He said,

“How do you make it possible for low income Blacks and low income whites in the mountain areas to improve their income? I can’t think of an institution better suited to that than a co-op. Cooperatives are the best people development institutions you can have. With cooperatives you deal with all of it – you are involved in the leadership development, people have to learn to run co-ops, work with people, learn to make plans, meet and set goals, marshal resources.

I have always been interested in rural development in the South. It’s not well understood outside of the South that there’s a connection between economic independence and political independence – that people didn’t have economic independence if when they voted they lost their jobs or got kicked off the plantation. The whole reason for forming cooperatives is to give people economic independence so that they could have independence in political and other matters.

Marshall also made reference to the development of democratic institutions which again is something Texas students and all students in the US should learn:

“All over the world you see democratic institutions sprouting up and we need to strengthen our democratic institutions here. The basic evolution is that first you have political institutions that are controlled by the people and not special interest groups – that’s political democracy. After workers get the right to vote then you have industrial democracy, which means worker participation in the work place. That’s collective bargaining. Most countries have taken that further than us. Then there’s social democracy where you have safety nets – a minimum level of welfare services. Every industrial country in the world is more developed in social democracy than us in, for example, health care and education. Finally, there’s economic democracy where individuals and not special interests control their economic institutions. Economic democracy strengthens all other forms of democracy. If you have economic democracy then people can’t intimidate you when you vote.“

But no brief account of progressive history in Texas could be complete without mentioning the agrarian revolt in the late 1800’s. According to Marshall’s friend and colleague historian Lawrence Goodwyn in his book “The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America” (1978), the farmers in Texas revolted because they were fed up with oppressive crop lien system of commercial capitalism after the Civil War that virtually enslaved and destroyed them. Their revolt spread through the country. It was profound. This is the history Texas students should be taught. Goodwyn describes these farmers as having a deep understanding of the economics of oppression they were experiencing and how significant parts of their organizing model should largely be emulated. He writes that:

“Democratic movements are initiated by people who have individually managed to attain a high level of personal political self-respect. They are not resigned; they are not intimidated. To put it another way, they are not culturally organized to conform to established hierarchical forms. Their sense of autonomy permits them to dare to try to change things by seeking to influence others …. “Individual self-respect” and ‘collective self-confidence” constitute, then, the cultural building blocks of mass democratic politics.  Their development permits people to conceive of the idea of acting in self-generated democratic ways – as distinct from passively participating in various hierarchical modes bequeathed by the received culture. In this study of Populism, I have given a name to this plateau of cooperative and democratic conduct. I have called it “the movement culture”. Once attained, it opens up new vistas of social possibility, vistas that are less clouded by inherited assumptions, I suggest that all significant mass democratic movements in human history have generated this autonomous capacity. Indeed, had they not done so, one cannot visualize how they could have developed into significant mass democratic movements.”

The conservative history outlined by the Texas Board of Education reminds me of the “Bantu” education developed by apartheid leaders in South Africa that demeaned Black South Africans. Throughout South Africa there were Black teachers who resisted and refused to teach this distorted history to their students. Texas teachers should do the same.

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 20 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net




Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.