Kentucky Republicans again aim to ban teaching truth about racism
Kentucky students like these at T. C. Cherry Elementary School in Bowling Green won't ever be taught the true and brutal history of Jim Crow racism if Republican legislators have their way. | Grace Ramey / Daily News via AP

Here they go again—white Republicans trying to whitewash history.

Kentucky State Sens. Max Wise and Robby Mills have introduced SB 138, the “Teaching American Principles Act.” Like HB 14 and HB 18, it’s a censorship bill aimed at restricting the teaching of systemic racism in public schools.

SB 138 requires a teacher who “chooses to discuss current events or controversial topics” to  “explore such topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to a specific perspective.”

“Does that mean that instruction cannot include the history that demonstrates that white institutions created slavery, Jim Crow oppression, and institutionalized racism?” asked Jim Johnson, a retired Louisville public school teacher. He wonders if the bill means teachers must present pro- and anti-slavery and pro- and anti-Jim Crow sides as morally equivalent.

The bill says slavery and post-Civil War Jim Crow racial discrimination, which included segregation, Black disenfranchisement, and lynchings, were bad “but that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery and Jim Crow]…is destructive to the unification of our nation; The future of America’s success is dependent upon cooperation between members of all races.”

Translation: A teacher mustn’t make white students feel bad by telling the truth about whites enslaving Black people and whites making Black people second-class citizens.

SB 138 claims that “Personal agency and the understanding that, regardless of race, sex, or socioeconomic status, an American has the power to succeed when he or she is given sufficient opportunity and is committed to seizing that opportunity through hard work, pursuit of education, and good citizenship.”

The rich and their apologists in politics, the press, and the pulpit have been running that con for years. “While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not,” Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980. “The Horatio Alger stories of ‘rags to riches’ were true for a few but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.” All that’s still true.

In addition, the myth disingenuously implies that Black Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ Americans don’t need laws to protect them from historically rampant discrimination from bigoted, straight, native-born white folks, and that workers don’t need unions to safeguard themselves against greedy bosses.

Anyway, conservatives love to portray themselves as defenders of “American principles.” In the 1920s, right-wing plutocrats called their anti-union crusade the “American plan” while portraying unions as “un-American.” Simultaneously, the Ku Klux Klan surged anew, claiming it stood for “100 Percent Americanism.”

In 1956, a group of Southern white supremacist Democratic senators and representatives—the political forebears of Trump Republicans—issued a protest against integration commonly known as the “Southern Manifesto.” Its official title was the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles.”

SB 138 “is more Orwellian double-talk,” said Murray, Ky., State University historian Brian Clardy, who is also a critic of HB 14 and HB 18. “How is shielding students from the brutal lessons of history going to benefit the intellectual or personal development of any student? The bill is lunacy.”

Meanwhile, Republicans love to style themselves the “pro business” party. Clardy suggested that SB 138 might help convince companies considering a move to Kentucky to go elsewhere.

“They are going to take a look at this nonsense and they’re going to say, ‘no,’” he said. I get it. A big factor in convincing Akron-based General Tire officials to build a big tire plant in Mayfield, my hometown, was the high quality of Mayfield’s public schools.

Clardy said SB 138, like HB 14 and 18, “will make Kentucky a laughingstock” nationwide. That reminded me of pompous Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s reply to somebody who told Il Duce that the Americans were making fun of him. Mussolini said he cared only what Italians thought of him.

Likewise, the sponsors of HB 14, 18, and SB 138 are pandering to the almost entirely white Trump base.

Clardy is hardly alone in taking issue with the three GOP censorship bills. Louisville attorney Everett Hoffman says SB 138 has the same intent as HB 14 and HB 18, but “appears to be mandating a complete social studies curriculum—‘Teaching American Principles’—at the state level that leaves no room for any nonconforming idea or material.”

“It is clear from the bills that continue to be introduced that the Republican-led legislature is intent on limiting discourse about the realities of our history,” said a statement from KY 120 United-American Federation of Teachers. “We do not have to wonder whose reality counts when we see this kind of legislation. They are bent on protecting their whitewashed version of history instead of making sure a history that includes the realities of ALL Kentucky students is learned.”

HB 14, HB 18, and SB138 reflect the national right-wing wig-out over Critical Race Theory, the study of how racism affects American society and law. Though it is taught in law schools, not K-12 schools, Republicans stick the “CRT” label on almost any school program that teaches the truth about racism.

A century ago, the country was in a similar uproar over the teaching of evolution, the basis of biological science. Kentucky became the first state to try to ban “the teaching of ‘Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism, or evolution,’” wrote James C. Klotter and Craig Thompson Friend in A New History of Kentucky, 2nd edition.

Anti-evolution bills were introduced in the Jim Crow Democratic-majority Senate and House, but neither passed after Dr. E.L. Powell, pastor at Louisville First Christian Church, and Dr. E.Y. Mullins, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, publicly denounced the bills, Klotter and Friend added.

Dr. Frank L, McVey, president of the University of Kentucky, sided with Powell and Mullins, publicly declaring that evolution was taught at UK because “failure to do so would make the university a laughingstock in the scientific community,” according to A New History of Kentucky.

In 1925, the white Democratic-majority Tennessee legislature joined the anti-evolution lunacy, approved an anti-evolution bill, and did become a worldwide laughingstock. Then earlier this year, the white Republican majority assembly of the Volunteer State celebrated the anti-CRT lunacy by passing an anti-CRT bill.

Clardy said HB 14 and 18 and SB 138 might dissuade out-of-state students from enrolling at UK, Murray, or some other Bluegrass State college or university. “They won’t want to come to a state where this kind of lunacy is celebrated.”


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.