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Jonathan Zimmerman on MLK, the FBI and What We Learn (or Don't) about American History and Why

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My guest today is Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at New York University. Welcome to OpEdNews, Jon. You recently wrote an article, "Movement Harassed by the FBI; Students need to know of attempts to discredit civil rights leaders." Exactly what is it we don't know and why don't we know it?

We don't know that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were wiretapped, harassed, and threatened by U.S. government officials throughout the 1960s. That's not part of our textbooks, because it doesn't fit the happy narrative that we tell about the civil rights era: brave African-Americans and their white liberal allies joined forces to defeat racist Southerners. The same supposed allies of the movement--including Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson--also spied upon King and others, who were quite literally enemies of the state.

It's not surprising that whites in the South did not let go of segregation easily. But what was so threatening to Washington? Was it just plain racism? Resisting such sweeping change? Something else entirely?

I'm not sure the history supports the premise that the Southern "massive resistance" (to Brown) was "threatening" to Washington. Brown [Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education] came down in 1954, and it wasn't really until the 1970s that the federal courts took action to make Southern school districts comply with it.

And on the question of why the South resisted . . . well, the entire culture rested on white supremacy. It's not just that federal intervention challenged "racism;" instead, it challenged the basic structure of POWER in the American South.

To take that a step farther, if power is what determines what makes it into the history books, how do you get the word out about what really happened? American historian Howard Zinn was pretty successful at it, with A People's History of the United States, which has sold two million copies. But, as you point out in your article, mainstream textbooks still tell the old, distorted and misleading version of our history.

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Well, I think we've come a long way. Remember, up until the 1960s, most American history textbooks described slavery as a beneficent institution devised by whites to civilize primitive blacks. Yes, there's still a lot of distortion in the books, as I pointed out in my article. But it's important to remember that we have revised the books, for the better . . .which suggests that we can do it again.

Developing materials and then revising them seems like an endless and complicated process. You're seem like the perfect guy to ask about it. Your second book, Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools [Harvard, 2002], discussed exactly that. For those of us who aren't familiar with Whose America , what can you tell us about the process?

For most of our history, American schools have been governed by local school boards. So the school policy has been highly democratic, in a small-d kind of way: it has been open (or, if you prefer, vulnerable) to an extraordinary amount of citizen influence. Whose America? describes how these different groups tried to change the curriculum, and it explores a central irony: although the process is small-d democratic, the outcome--especially in arenas like history textbooks--is not democratic, if you think that schools should teach our children the habits and practices of democratic life. If we took THAT injunction seriously, we'd create books and materials that exposed kids to a wide variety of perspectives and positions. But the demos--that would be "the people", in a democracy--doesn't seem to want that. So the textbooks are bland, avoiding anything that hints of contention or controversy.

You're currently a department chair at New York University. But your first teaching job was in Nepal, with the Peace Corps. What was that like and how did it shape your future teaching?

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I taught kids who walked one-two hours, up a mountain, to get to school. The experience reminds me --to this day-- about the transformative potential of education. But it also underscores the cultural differences in conceptions of "education" itself, which became the theme of my book Innocents Abroad.

Perfect timing. I was just going to ask you about Innocents Abroad! I imagine that the impetus for that book stemmed from your Peace Corps stint. Can you give our readers a thumbnail sketch of what you found when you took a historical look at American volunteer efforts overseas?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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