Mississippi Schools Using Disputed History Textbook

September 07, 1981 2 min read

After being deemed “unacceptable” for the past six years by the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board, but “acceptable” by a federal court last year, a controversial textbook on the history of the state is finally finding its way into Mississippi’s ninth grade classrooms.

According to the text’s publisher, 21 of the state’s 153 public school districts have said they plan to use Mississippi: Conflict and Change in their schools. Many, however, will introduce the textbook gradually, as they phase out texts currently being used. The school systems involved apparently have acted in light of the go-ahead signal given by the court on the textbook case, which has been the subject of a heated legal struggle since 1975.

Ten of the districts plan to use the book as a primary text, and 11 more said they will use it to supplement other state-history textbooks, according to Pantheon Books, the subsidiary of Random House that published the book in 1974 and issued a revised edition in 1980. The Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board said that they did not have a record of the number of districts interested in using the text.

The history of Mississippi: Conflict and Change has been stormy, both before and after its publication. Charles Sallis and James Loewen, who wrote the textbook in the early 1970’s, had a hard time finding a publisher for it because of its “innovative” approach, and “liberal” attitude on subjects such as race and women’s rights. More than ten publishers turned the book down--mainly, say observers, because companies feared their sales in southern states would suffer if they published it.

Finally, in 1974, editors at Pantheon Books decided to publish the text. Pantheon had never published a textbook before, and has not published one since. As soon as the text was submitted to the state, however, the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board, which must approve all public-school texts purchased with state funds, promptly voted that the book was unacceptable.

The text covers many sensitive subjects. Included are such passages as: “Black children received especially poor treatment in Mississippi’s school system. Under the disguise of ‘separate but equal’ accommodation, the state required black children to use separate schools that were much poorer than those for white children.”

Shortly after the text was first published the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (N.A.A.C.P.) Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and a group of educators brought suit on behalf of the authors. The case, Loewen v. Turnipseed, reached the Federal District Court in 1980. The judge ruled that the textbook board’s stance constituted an abridgment of “academic freedom under the First Amendment,” and of the “fundamental interest in maintaining a free and open education system that provides for the acquisition of useful knowledge.”

Before the court decision made it acceptable for use in Mississippi schools, only a few thousand copies of Mississippi: Conflict and Change were sold. Most were purchased by school libraries--including many in Mississippi.

The publisher has no firm figures on sales subsequent to the federal court ruling; 1,500 copies were shipped on consignment to the state, and it may be some time before orders from school districts wishing to use the book can be tallied. -S.W.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1981 edition of Education Week