Alabama’s education system was designed to preserve white supremacy. I should know. Kyle Whitmire
Updated: Dec. 23, 2022, 11:50 p.m.| Published: Dec. 21, 2022, 7:00 a.m.
(Art by David Jack Browning for DJB Design.) By - Kyle Whitmire | firstname.lastname@example.org
Shared to the CalCoDem website by Beverly Williams. You can subscribe to the Alabamafication newsletter at https://www.al.com/opinion/2022/11/sign-up-for-kyle-whitmires-newsletter.html
About this project: Alabama has been poisoned by old lies. “State of Denial” looks at how Alabama’s past corrupts its present and deprives the state of a better future. You can follow this initiative and Kyle Whitmire's other work by subscribing to the Alabamafication newsletter. [N]othing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense, nor as limiting the authority and duty of the legislature, in furthering or providing for education, to require or impose conditions or procedures deemed necessary to the preservation of peace and order. — Alabama Constitution of 1901, Amendment 111
What’s the danger of not minding one’s history? Come with me, and I’ll show you. What I have in store is kind of embarrassing, but I think you need to see it. It’s 1989 and the lights are down in this mostly-metal building. When your eyes adjust, you’ll see we’re in one of those multipurpose structures common among small rural schools — sometimes a gymnasium and sometimes an auditorium, with a lunchroom tucked beneath the bleachers. Tonight, it’s an auditorium, and the stage is set for the sixth-grade class play. As parents file into their seats, the metal folding chairs clank against each other and rub against the maple wood floor. Over by the scoreboard, you’ll see a clear copyright violation of Ole Miss’ mascot, a goofy Colonel Sanders look-alike leaning on his cane, only the colors are different. When this place serves as a basketball court, the Rebels play here. This is a segregation academy, one of the many private schools that sprang up in Alabama when integration of public schools became inevitable. Shhhhh … the show’s about to start. The theme for tonight is the South, from old to new, and it’s a story as faithful to history as you might expect in a place created to defy the integration of public schools. I mean, these kids are going to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and every last one of them is white. But first, the children act out the story of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. In “Lies my Teacher Told Me,” historian James Loewen says you can tell a lot about an American History textbook by how it depicts Brown — either as a righteous freedom fighter liberating the enslaved or, more often, a deranged zealot hell-bent on treason. The litmus test works for elementary school productions, too, but because we’re watching 11 and 12-year-olds and not professional actors, it’s hard to tell which direction this show is taking. At least until Brown’s captor shows up — an American colonel and soon-to-be Confederate hero named Robert E. Lee. A short kid in a long coat and a Santa Claus beard enters from stage left. A tuft of red hair sticks out from beneath a borrowed Stetson hat. He walks up behind the original outside agitator, points a cap pistol from the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop at the center of his back and then shoots the bastard race traitor dead, center stage. As the lights dim for the scene change, the chorus sings “John Brown’s Body lies a moldering in the grave …” This is the sort of performance that will one day give Southern politicians night sweats for fear of being canceled. Believe me, I know. Our little Robert E. Lee up there — that’s me. This production is where I learned the words to “Dixie,” and if we stick around for the finale, there’s an adorable rendition of the band Alabama’s “Song of the South.” After 33 years, I still don’t know what the line “Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth” is supposed to mean. But one thing, I know for sure — I wasn’t ever supposed to learn what really happened in this state where I grew up, and what I know now I didn’t learn here. A lot of people went to a whole lot of trouble, building whole schools from scratch to make sure it never happened. And that shouldn’t be a surprise — the last century of Alabama struggles were always about education. The Old (school) South How would you know if you grew up in a cult? It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot and I still don’t have a good answer. Being educated in the South, especially Alabama, leaves everyone with a choice: Accept what you’ve been given without question, or spend your life wondering how much of what you’ve been taught is true. My parents’ decision to enroll me in a seg academy had less to do with their politics, and more to do with my mom’s work. She was a teacher, and when we moved to our little town, the private school was the only place hiring. It was frowned upon there for faculty to enroll their children in public school, and my folks took the path of least resistance. But not without some doubts, and as a nosey child, I rooted them out. I’d eavesdrop on their conversations about it, although the only one I remember distinctly was not about race, but rather my new science textbook that said God created the world in six days. Not only were seg academies hacked-together institutions with flimsy standards, but most also took cover behind the guise of “Christian” academies. The secularization of public education was older than most people alive and didn’t coincide with when these schools opened — desegregation did. But advertising private education as a refuge from the evils of evolution was more defensible than saying your children won’t have to share a classroom with Black kids. However, this parochial roleplay required the curricula to fit the facade, and some folks within the system played the role so well, they actually came to believe it. My parents seemed concerned I’d come to believe it, too. When they caught me listening in, they told me something radical for an elementary student — I should give the right answers on the tests, but I need not believe everything I was taught in school. It felt like I had been given a dangerous new freedom, like being left at home alone for the first time. I had permission to decide things for myself, but it would be decades before I questioned just how much what I had been taught was actually true. My mom died in a car crash when I was 10 and, by high school, I was enrolled in the public school which, unlike most schools I’ve seen since, was somewhat integrated. When I got there, I expected something altogether different, like moving to another country. Quite the opposite, it wasn’t so different after all. But for a handful of kids, students mostly self-segregated in lunchrooms and bleachers. Curricula diverged, too — vocational and college prep — and while that division didn’t follow strict racial lines, the tracks clearly hewed to one group or the other. There were Black students in my classes, but rarely more than five or six at a time. Integration, as fragile as it was, didn’t force any great reckoning, but rather a new status quo that often cared about keeping the peace more than telling the complete truth. Alabama’s tortured, violent past was mostly told by way of silence. There are two exceptions I must acknowledge, though. One was our American History teacher, a stern woman named Betty Collins who had higher expectations of her students than most students had of themselves. She told us early that we wouldn’t use “we” when referring to the South during the Civil War. “We” meant the United States of America. Another was Jimmie Rose Bryant. The vice-principal and one of the few Black teachers, she taught Alabama History. I had another teacher for that subject, but I regularly heard my white classmates griping about Mrs. Bryant’s focus on the civil rights movement. I never heard Black students make any such complaints. Meanwhile, my Alabama History class was busy learning the names of the county seats, oblivious that something interesting might ever have happened here. More often, history ended with WWII. The Allies would defeat the Axis Powers and … whaddya know? We’re out of time for the year. Have a good summer, kids! Little did I know then, this weird curriculum of We’re-Not-Going-to-Talk-About-It had only recently taken the place of outright lies. Public education in Alabama was largely a product of Reconstruction, though white landowners resented the taxes it required. Here, Black children and their teacher study at the Annie Davis School, near Tuskegee, Alabama. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)Getty Images A brief history of Alabama public education: Part I Had I gone to school just a few years before, I would have gotten a very different education. For nearly a century, the Daughters of the Confederacy shaped an alternate history for Alabama schools, one in which Southern valor had been tragically outmatched by the superior resources of underhanded Yankees. The Daughters purged texts they didn’t like from school libraries and investigated teachers who didn’t keep to their version of events. They even included in school textbooks a “Confederate catechism” to correct any suggestion that slavery or the Southern rebellion might have been mistakes, much less the cause of the Civil War. As late as the 1980s, Alabama history textbooks argued that enslaved people had been happy and well cared for, that the Ku Klux Klan had been a mostly peaceful but misunderstood men’s organization, and that Yankee carpetbaggers and traitorous scalawags had pillaged the South after the war. The story that carpetbaggers were post-war predators exploiting a defenseless South was something I grew up hearing, both in and out of school, but the reality had been something different and the myth hid something important. The so-called carpetbaggers, scalawags and freedmen had tried to build something new in Alabama — public schools. Those schools required taxes. If you grew up in Alabama, that’s the pillaging of the poor old South you heard about — taxes for schools. White Southerners then, like most folks now, didn’t want to pay taxes, especially the plantation owners and a new class of urban industrialists around Birmingham. When Reconstruction ended, they repealed many of those taxes and, for a time, disbanded the Alabama Board of Education. But poor whites flipped out. The Reconstruction schools had been their first chance at education and they wanted that opportunity back. So the state’s ruling class put together a new grand bargain — the Alabama Constitution of 1901. Its explicit purpose was to banish Black voters from the political system but it also weaponized public education as a wedge issue between races. It offered a Devil’s bargain to poor whites: We may not treat you like one of us, but stick by our side and we won’t treat you like one of them, either. The constitution delivered on its promise to disenfranchise Black voters, but support for public education was another matter. Like every deal with the Devil, this one came with fine print. Everyday low taxes, guaranteed Of course, nobody taught me any of this in school — not my old seg academy but not my new public school, either. Instead, I had to figure most of it out myself. I began to put the pieces together in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It seemed half my town was there that day for the grand opening of our brand new Supercenter, which replaced the old Wal-Mart just a little further down the road. There was a band. A woman I didn’t know belted the Star Spangled Banner as I’d never heard before. The store’s general manager — who’d later become our mayor — led the blue-vested employees in a corporate cheer. “Give me a W!”..... "W” Give me an A!”..... “A!” "Give me an L!”..... “L!” “Give me a squiggly!” he shouted as he bent his knees and wiggled his hips. “Squiggly!” the employees grunted as they mimicked their boss, drawing laughs from the crowd. If this seems slightly demeaning, we’re just getting started. Before I changed schools, I’d been the Kid Who Could Draw, but my new class already had a Kid Who Could Draw, so I cast about for something else to set me apart. Eventually, I’d settle on the Kid Who Could Write, but before I got there, I dabbled with the Kid Who Could Speak and the Kid Who Could Act on Stage. Speech and theater classes were rare in rural Alabama, and ours often depended on hand-outs from different businesses to get by. In exchange for a small donation, we had agreed to dress as commercial children’s characters for the grand opening. For the next several hours, my classmates and I took turns suiting up like deep sea divers. We were the Keebler Elf, the Blue Bunny and everybody’s favorite, Barney the purple dinosaur. Barney had to have escorts as bodyguards after one kid came up to my older stepbrother, who was taking his turn in the suit, and punched him square in the stomach. But my classmates and I didn’t mind the gig, though. The new store was a warehouse of free samples and never-before-seen wonders like rotisserie chicken and a McDonald’s inside the store. Also, we got a free pass out of school. The brat who punched my brother wasn’t the only kid playing hooky that day. Since then, I’ve read a lot of articles and have seen documentaries lamenting how Wal-Mart destroyed small-town America, but for my town, it did something different. It wasn’t just the donation that helped our theater class. That box store gave the town a sales tax base that could sustain a school. In rural Alabama, schools are dependent on sales taxes. Keep that fact handy, because we’ll be coming back to it in a minute. And if you’re thinking that sales taxes are a tax on the poor, you’re absolutely right, and Thomasville was smack in the middle of a sea of poor folks to tax. Depending on which map you’re looking at, it may or may not show Clarke County as part of the Black Belt. It was certainly close enough that we could see it. Heck, if you closed your eyes when you crossed the Wilcox County line, you could hear the road noise change from one county’s pavement to the other. We lived at the edge of a continental shelf with the lip of an abyss of poverty just across the county line. And one thing about Thomasville set it apart — we had a somewhat integrated and reasonably funded public school. Thomasville High School didn’t guarantee an education, but you could find one if you looked for it. Electives and extracurriculars were something private schools had been too small to afford, and competitive speech and theater were things I enjoyed, especially when those things led to state competitions. Those overnight trips opened my eyes to two things about Alabama that I hadn’t realized before. Again, things nobody taught in our classrooms. First was that, while our school was better off than others around us, there were schools in this state that made ours look like a dump. We’d visit schools In the major cities and their suburbs. They had auditoriums that were only auditoriums, lunchrooms that were only lunchrooms, and music classes outside of marching band. Their art classes had wide open studios to work in. Their science labs had suitable equipment, and the air conditioning didn’t hang perilously out half-open windows or somehow freeze over and stop working when it was 95 degrees outside. Second, apart from the schools, not all of Alabama looked like my hometown. On one trip to north Alabama, two of my Black classmates noticed something missing at a pitstop along the way — other Black people. Back on the bus, they asked our teacher where the other Black people were and if something had happened to them. There were parts of Alabama that weren’t fertile enough for cotton plantations and so they don’t have many Black people, our teacher explained. This didn’t do anything to put my classmates at ease. Some of our white classmates and I thought this hysterical and gave them hell over their concern, something that embarrasses me now a lot more than playing Confederate dress-up in sixth grade. I’d learn later that theirs were perfectly rational fears for young Black men pretty much anywhere in America. But even then I could tell there were two things in Alabama that dictated what you might expect out of education — what color you were and where you lived. And this had been by design.
Public school funding in Alabama favored white schools over Black, but it was still so woefully inadequate for all that the War Department had to reject Alabama conscripts during WWI for lack of education. Further, their tests showed Black students outside the South had outperformed white students in Alabama. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Universal Images Group via Getty A brief history of public education in Alabama: Part II The United States military understood something a century ago that many folks still don’t get today — there are some people who aren’t smart enough to trust with a gun. In 1917, the United States Department of War experimented with a novel idea. While sifting and sorting conscripts for World War I, it put to use intelligence tests to see which draftees were suitable for combat and in which roles. Alabama flunked the test. Alabamians, white and Black, scored so badly that many had to be sent home rather than to the front lines for fear they might shoot the wrong people. And these tests also showed something else — white people in Alabama scored worse than Black people outside the South. Standardized testing and intelligence tests have a nasty history of abetting racism, but this one showed white superiority to be a lie. And what Alabama had done to perpetuate that lie was hurting everybody. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Alabama’s new constitution promised a right to an education, but it didn’t do much to fund it. The state’s anemic education system kept poor people where the south Alabama planters and north Alabama industrialists wanted them — in the fields, factories and mines. White schools got little. Black schools got much less. In 1930, Lowndes County spent $96 per pupil for white schools, according to Alabama historian Wayne Flynt. For Black children, it spent $5. The WWI intelligence tests embarrassed the state, and several elected leaders from that period sometimes get credit for being “progressives” who championed reforms. But for most of the 20th century, education reform in Alabama meant meeting the minimum expectations of white people while ignoring the needs of Black people. Until 1954, when things got even worse. Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka set in motion the desegregation of public schools, and in 1956, Alabama resisted with suicidal defiance. Amendment 111 to the Alabama Constitution of 1901 rescinded the state’s right to an education. Later, the state enacted even more restrictions on property tax, and whites in majority-Black areas either moved en masse or enrolled their children in hacked-together seg academies. The post-Reconstruction fear of “negro rule” was very much alive in white Alabama and resulted in the widespread abandonment of public schools. By 1990, a coalition of rural schools sued Alabama for its pathetic support of public education. At trial, witnesses described schools without libraries, schools where textbooks were older than the students, schools that were structurally unsound, unsanitary and infested with vermin. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that, despite the obvious inequity and inadequacy, only the Legislature had the authority to do something about it. The Legislature responded as it often does — by doing nothing. It’s not sufficient to say Alabama has failed its students. “Failure” implies some kind of accident. What Alabama did to its school children, it did on purpose. Until 1966, the Alabama Democratic Party proudly advertised what it was for — White Supremacy. The party changed the logo after the Voting Rights Act restored Black voters' right to take part in Alabama elections. When we talk about white supremacy I’ve been throwing around the word “poor” a lot, despite it being out of fashion. Recently, listening to public radio, I heard a host tell of a book drive for “under-resourced” kids, which sounds like a logistical problem. There is nothing shameful about being poor in Alabama. The shame belongs to lawmakers and lobbyists in Montgomery and c-suite executives in Birmingham who’ve let this travesty go on for 120 years. Rather than fix disparities in public education, lawmakers have shamed “failing schools” and invented new ways to raid school funds to subsidize private academies. We do not control what we inherit, but we do control what we do with it. The poor have not inherited anything but their poverty, which they get the day they are born. But the political and economic descendants of those 1901 conventioneers have preserved a system that should have been obliterated and replaced a long time ago. A system designed to preserve white supremacy. When I was growing up, I thought “white supremacy” meant the Klan or neo-Nazis — whose numbers by then had dwindled to a handful of goofy extremists. They held pathetic little marches in far-away cities or played freak-of-the-week on daytime talk shows like Geraldo. It was on one of these shows that I first heard the n-word. My grandmother, who had been watching with me at her house, shuddered. “We don’t talk like that,” she told me. “We say ‘colored.’” But what these groups had done in the past was seldom a topic of conversation. No one taught us how Klan membership had been a virtual prerequisite for public office in Alabama — for governors, senators and one eventual U.S. Supreme Court justice. Nor did they say that, until a few years before I was born, the state’s one functional political party had proudly proclaimed “white supremacy, for the right” at the top of its primary ballots. No one taught us that the foundational law of our state had been written with the explicit purpose of “White Supremacy by Law.” I suppose it’s a habit of adults everywhere to keep grown-up matters out of children’s ears, but there’s something very Southern about awkwardly hiding from one generation something that had been plastered on seemingly every flat surface a few decades before. In recent years, school curricula has incorporated some of Alabama’s secret history, which has in turn triggered a backlash from angry parents. Earlier this year, Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey told lawmakers that parents had begun calling his office to report Black History Month lessons were CRT. How do you know if you were born into a cult? Risking arrest at a local school board meeting might be a clue. The thing is, I understand where some of those folks are coming from. Growing up, I had been exposed to enough Confederate apologist nonsense that, for a time, I believed it, too. It’s hard to let go, and when you realize that something you’ve believed your whole life might be a lie, it’s disorienting in a way that most folks will never appreciate. It’s scary. How did I find my way out of those woods? I didn’t learn of our state’s secret history in school. Instead, I learned about it through my work. In one of my first jobs out of school, I befriended a Jefferson County Circuit Judge, Mac Parsons, who had served in the Alabama Senate, shaming his colleagues with his wit and intelligence, until they got so sick of him that they drew him out of his district. Drinking coffee in his chambers one day, I said something to the effect of, “You know, I think the real problems in this state might go all the way back to 1901.” I might as well have said that our crime problems could be attributed to guns, drugs and poverty. Parsons had been the Legislature’s fiercest advocate for constitution reform. “All these legislators go to Montgomery,” Parsons said. “They put their hands on the Bible and swear to uphold the Alabama Constitution of 1901 — and they haven’t read either one of them things.” He had read both from beginning to end, and he became my first tutor on Alabama’s wretched source code. The next thing that happened was I took a job covering Birmingham City Hall. I wrote about the foibles behind the council dais for eight years, and I saw the state’s largest city, majority Black, have to beg permission from a majority white suburban legislative delegation for what should have been simple things. But also, at City Hall, I got to meet civil rights heroes including Abraham Woods, Fred Shuttlesworth, and the footsoldiers they led through Kelly Ingram Park. I got to hear about Alabama’s secret history from people who had lived it. It didn’t take long to understand why all this was kept a secret. In Alabama, we are told to forget the things we should be proud of and to have pride in the things that should give us shame. If we taught this state’s true history in schools, somebody might have to confess their great-granddaddy’s crimes. If we ever came to understand what hell 120 years of malicious indifference had wrecked on Alabama, somebody might have to pay taxes. Heck, if most people in this state understood how badly they’d been cheated, it might even lead to violence. It’s happened before. So in history’s place, we were given a fairy tale. This carefully programmed nostalgia for the antebellum South was everywhere — in schools, in parks, and in museums. It was even on TV. In the early 1990s, it seemed like TBS played “Gone with the Wind” on an infinite loop, interrupted by ridiculously long commercials for expensive Civil War chess sets from the Franklin Mint. Wherever you went, it was always near. Meanwhile, Reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement rarely got their due, confined to 30-second “The More You Know” public service announcements during Black History Month. In my experience, it was not so much that people lied about what had happened. They just didn’t talk about the parts they wanted to forget. Silence across generations is surprisingly effective at erasing important facts from public memory. There’s an argument I can hear already that I couldn’t see these things then because I was white, and that Black people have passed secret knowledge from person to person, one generation to the next. I hope that is true, but I have reason to believe it isn’t, not always. Earlier this year, when I wrote about the 1874 Election Massacre in Eufaula, my email inbox filled with messages from Black people who grew up there, some who still lived there, who had never heard that such a thing had occurred. But I’ll tell you something else. A year ago, I sat in an antebellum house museum with two Sons of Confederate Veterans and three Daughters of the Confederacy. In the course of our conversation, I told them the story of that massacre in Eufaula, where seven Black men had died and as many as 80 others were wounded while trying to vote. To a person, they agreed that tragedy deserved to be memorialized, too. The thing is, we love talking about the past — the parts we like. The other stuff we ignore, distort or try to forget because we are afraid of being judged. Confronting the past can be painful or embarrassing. The closer that gets to ourselves, the harder it becomes. However, I believe Alabama can reckon with the hard stuff. History is not statues in the park or a flag on a public building. It’s not stories in school books or rote facts committed to memory. History is a discipline. It’s interrogating the past with healthy skepticism. It’s learning to accept the ugly parts. And it’s learning from them, too. It’s asking, over and over again, is that how it really happened? Only when we ask that question might we finally change. Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, 2020 winner of the Walker Stone Award, winner of the 2021 SPJ award for opinion writing, and 2021 winner of the Molly Ivins prize for political commentary. About this project: Alabama has been poisoned by old lies. “State of Denial” looks at how Alabama’s past corrupts its present and deprives the state of a better future. You can follow this initiative and Kyle Whitmire's other work by subscribing to the "Alabamafication" newsletter.