Blogs > Jim Loewen > How Two Historians Responded to Racism in Mississippi

Dec 7, 2014

How Two Historians Responded to Racism in Mississippi

tags: historiography,racism,Reconstruction,Mississippi

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

In 1963, I was a junior at Carleton College in Minnesota. My classmates who majored in French were spending their junior year in France. I was in sociology and had never lived outside the Midwest. "How is that competent?" I asked myself. I did not think it was competent. So I decided to spend part of my "junior year abroad" in Mississippi.

I went to Mississippi State University for the winter quarter, January through March. While there, I audited courses, talked with community leaders in Starkville and Clarksdale, and spent several days as an "exchange student" at Tougaloo College near Jackson and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, historically black institutions. (I put "exchange student" in quotation marks because no one went the other way, of course. Mississippi State University was then the largest segregated all-white institution of higher learning outside South Africa.) I also got to know two members of Mississippi State's Department of History.

It was (and remains) the largest history department in the state. It was the only department that granted the doctorate. In U.S. history its faculty included two historians of regional renown, John K. Bettersworth and Glover Moore. They were contemporaries: Bettersworth was born in 1909, Moore two years later. For four decades they overlapped at Mississippi State. Each became president of the Mississippi Historical Society. Its website calls Moore "the Mississippi State University professor who from 1936 to 1977 served as mentor and guide to countless students and historians." It calls Bettersworth "the distinguished historian and author who served as professor and administrator at Mississippi State University for almost forty years."

The historical society still honors both of them: its John K. Bettersworth Award goes annually to an outstanding teacher of middle school or high school history, while its Glover Moore Prize goes biennially to the best M.A. thesis. Both prizes carry a monetary award of $300, but the two historians are hardly of equal merit, at least in my eyes.1

Beneath their external similarities, the two men differed in their core values. John K. Bettersworth wrote probably the most important book that children across Mississippi read in high school. Variously titled Mississippi: A History; Mississippi: Yesterday and Today; and finally Your Mississippi, it was the required textbook for the required ninth-grade course, "Mississippi History." It stayed in print from 1959 to at least 1986.

Robert Coles, famed psychiatrist and author of the best-selling Children of Crisis series, tells the impact of these books upon black Mississippians by using the example of a family he "came to know in 1964," when he "worked in Mississippi as a member of the civil rights Summer Project." He quotes the mother, speaking of her children:

They don't get much out of school. Our people aren't supposed to take their education too seriously. We're supposed to do all the dirty work, and the white man is supposed to do the learning. I've seen the books they give our children in school. Our own people--Negro teachers--use those books. One of them was fired for telling the kids that the books are no good.

Her daughter told Coles about the impact that the Freedom Schools, an important part of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, had on her:

If it hadn't been for the civil rights people coming here, maybe I wouldn't have worried; maybe I would have swallowed what those people want us to swallow. But why should we go to school and read books that tell us that racists like Ross Barnett and Bilbo were nice men and that the blacks and whites always got along real nice, except for the Yankees who came down here?

Indeed, Bettersworth wrote exactly that. He began his chapter on Reconstruction, which he titled "The Road to 'Redemption,'" with this summary:

The war was over, but the fighting was not; reconstruction [sic] was a worse battle than the war had ever been. Slavery was gone, but the problem of the free former slaves was not. To make matters worse, political adventurers from the North came in to make their fortunes off the troubled state. The struggle of the state to free itself in the war was hardly more difficult than the struggle to free itself during reconstruction. Yet by 1875 the old political order had returned, and white and black people set about the task of getting along together in the "New South" as they had in the "Old.”....2

Parsing this paragraph, the first sentence wins a Pinocchio award. Reconstruction was hardly “a worse battle” than the Civil War. To be sure, white supremacists murdered more than 1,000 black and white Republicans in Mississippi during Reconstruction, but 20,000 men died in the campaign for Vicksburg, alone. The only way that Reconstruction was "worse" than the Civil War was that it challenged white supremacy even more directly than did the role that United States Colored Troops played during the war.

Historian John K. Bettersworth as he looked in about 1970. 

 Photo courtesy of the Mississippi State University Libraries.

Indeed, this is what Bettersworth means, as his next sentence makes clear. It's quite a sentence: "Slavery was gone, but the problem of the free former slaves was not." If only they — the black population of the state, then slightly larger than the white population — had left! Then we'd have no problem! Robert E. Lee expressed similar sentiments, testifying in 1866 before the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction. "I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them."3 What is a black high school student to make of Bettersworth's sentence? For that matter, what is a white student to do with it? It implies that the state would be better off after total racial cleansing!

The sentence should have read: "Slavery was gone, but slavery's handmaiden — the ideology of white supremacy — was not." Such a sentence would have provided black and white students with more accurate history and with a tool for understanding the past's relevance to the present.

Bettersworth goes on to invoke the stereotypical "carpetbagger" image: "To make matters worse, political adventurers from the North came in to make their fortunes off the troubled state." As if "adventurers" would seek riches from what had already become, as it remains, the poorest state in the United States! A more typical "carpetbagger" was the white female schoolteacher from New England, come into the state to help teach black children — and adults — to read.

Every sentence in the paragraph — indeed, almost every sentence in his book — merits critique. However, the final sentence is accurate, if understood ironically. By 1876 (Bettersworth misdates), "the old political order" had indeed returned. From then until the Civil Rights Movement began to cause improvement, whites and blacks indeed got along "as they had" in the Old South — that is, hierarchically, with whites on top, blacks on the bottom.

Bettersworth's own white supremacy distorted not only his treatment of Reconstruction. Throughout, his book simply omits African Americans whenever they did anything notable. Among its sixty images of people, for instance, just two included African Americans, and both were "Old South" images: a drawing of a white mistress reading from the Bible to a group of slaves and a painting of cotton pickers by a white artist.4

As a historian, Bettersworth had to know better about Reconstruction. Anyone who ever read primary sources in Mississippi history knew better. My own eyes were opened when I read Vicksburg newspapers published in the 1870s. One Democratic newspaper in 1871 or '72 noted that African American men were going to be voting from then on. (In the nineteenth century, the Democratic Party was the party of overt white supremacy and even called itself "the White Man's Party" into the 1920s.) Its editor said he was therefore becoming a Republican, because that was the surest way to recapture political influence. He thought he could lead black public opinion, and perhaps he could have, in time. However, events of 1875 and '76 persuaded him to flip-flop again. Violent attacks on black Republican voters and candidates convinced him that African Americans might not be voting permanently. So he became a Democrat again and urged all whites to do the same.

White Democrats opposed Reconstruction not because it was a failure, but because it was working. Today almost all historians of Reconstruction hold that view. Even in 1959, when Bettersworth wrote the first edition of his textbook, the standard secondary source on Reconstruction, Vernon Wharton's The Negro in Mississippi, 1865-1890, was already twelve years old. It tells a very different story about Reconstruction than Bettersworth.

In 1971, Bettersworth showed that he too shared today's consensual view of Reconstruction. In the New York Times, he reviewed three books, for young readers, about Reconstruction.5 He set up his review by noting, "the racial crisis of our times has found the black man still fighting for a freedom he once fleetingly enjoyed until the politics of Southern recalcitrance and Northern hypocrisy conspired to nullify it." This review made clear that Bettersworth knew that the interracial Republican coalition that governed Mississippi during Reconstruction had done a good job under difficult circumstances. Discussing the one book of the three that specifically treated his state, Milton Meltzer's exemplary Freedom Comes to Mississippi, Bettersworth wrote, "A century ago, freedom came to the black man, who experienced it for a few years — until the political bargain of 1877 ... left the whole business to be done over again a century later as the Second Reconstruction."

He approves of Meltzer's work, pointing out that his book is "relevant" today, "as Reconstruction was, and still is."

Logically, Bettersworth had to know that what he wrote about Reconstruction (and the rest of Mississippi history) in his textbook likewise made a difference in the present. He could not have believed that his textbook was only an innocent way to make a few thousand dollars without hurting anyone. At Mississippi State, he encountered the fruits of his labor in every class that he taught. He had to have known how appallingly racist some of his students could be. He had merely to talk with his own undergraduates, which I did when I was one. My best friend (!) at Mississippi State, for example, told me with pride what he had done when the black driver in front of him stopped suddenly for a red light in downtown Greenwood, and my friend didn't stop fast enough. He jumped out of his car, surveyed the damage he had caused, then turned to the black driver and said, "Nigger! Why'd you back up?!" Knowing the mores of Mississippi, the African American dared not contradict a white man, so he drove off without getting the information needed to file an insurance claim against the driver who had hit him. Bettersworth's state history textbook provided the intellectual justification for such outrageous acts of white supremacy. Most white students believed what his textbook said about the inferiority of African Americans. How were they to learn better? Southern society was structured to prevent them ever from having an equal interaction with a person of another race.

To be sure, in his textbooks Bettersworth "merely" wrote what the white power structure of Mississippi wanted all Mississippi youth to read. Ross Barnett, the segregationist governor who tried to keep James Meredith out of the University of Mississippi in 1962, and whose inflammatory rhetoric helped spark the white race riot that followed, told the Textbook Board in that year, "There is nothing so important as the molding of the hearts and minds of our young people." Toward this end, after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 required school desegregation, Mississippi had responded with a package of measures designed to thwart the Court and maintain "our Southern way of life." Every Mississippian knew that meant segregation and white supremacy. One new law passed in 1956 required all fifth- and ninth-graders to take a year-long course in "Mississippi History." That law created the market for the textbook that Bettersworth supplied, and I mean that sentence ideologically as well as economically. We the people have to believe that what we do is right. Bettersworth supplied the history that enabled white Mississippians to justify their racist acts. White children who learned that Reconstruction was "worse ... than the war had ever been" because blacks had the vote could be counted on to oppose black voting now. Thus Bettersworth’s textbooks bolstered the thinking of Ross Barnett and even Byron de la Beckwith, murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Conversely, black children who learned that same message would hardly be able to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the struggle for civil rights in the present.

Is it too harsh to imply that John Bettersworth had blood on his hands because of the murder of Medgar Evers? History is important. What historians say to thousands of children makes a difference.

Could Bettersworth have done otherwise? Could he have written an accurate history of the state? He later implied that he could not: “The times determined what textbooks would be published.”6 But this is self-serving. In 1959, John K. Bettersworth was perhaps the most eminent historian in the state. Certainly he was the most eminent historian at Mississippi State, which was the most eminent history department in the state. Had he written an honest history of Mississippi, possibly some right-wing historian at Ole Miss or a junior college might have written a competitor, but Mississippi typically adopted three to five books in each subject. It is not conceivable that the State Textbook Board would have chosen only the competitor and rejected a book by the dean (literally!) of Mississippi historians. No, he determined what textbook would be published.

I don’t know what Dr. Bettersworth thought as he wrote and revised his textbooks. We can surmise that he knew that Ross Barnett surely did not read the New York Times, which was not then available within the state except by mail. Conversely, he knew that the OAH and AHA did not (and still do not) review high school U.S. history textbooks, let alone state histories. Thus his reputation as a white supremacist in Mississippi would not be undermined by his book review, while his reputation as a historian would not be sullied by his racist and unprofessional textbook.7

I also know that in the early 1970s, he wrote the text for Shrines To Tomorrow: A Photographic Study of More than 100 Historical Churches in Mississippi. He and the photographer, Bob Moulder, chose the churches, Bettersworth stated, for their historical and architectural significance. The first photo was an evocative image of a small Choctaw Indian Protestant church in rural Neshoba County. The Port Gibson Presbyterian Church, its steeple crowned not by a cross but by a hand dramatically pointing heavenward, won a prominent spot. Bettersworth and Moulder also included practically every First Baptist, First Presbyterian, and Episcopal church in every large town in the state — but not a single black church.

This was inexcusable. Everyone in the state knew that the one institution that African Americans built and took pride in above all others was their church. Entire black denominations were born in Mississippi, including the enormous Church of God in Christ, which had perhaps five million members around the world when Bettersworth wrote. Nevertheless, he did not see fit to include its original building or the chapel at its junior college in Lexington. Architecturally, the interesting black tradition of the twin steeples in front went unexamined because it went unrepresented.

The chapel at Mississippi State University 

Photo courtesy of the Mississippi State University Libraries.

 Bettersworth included the chapel at Mississippi State, but not Woodworth Chapel at Tougaloo. The only historic or architectural distinction of State's chapel was that it had been faced with bricks recycled from Old Main, a campus building that had burned. 

 Woodworth Chapel, Tougaloo College

Photo courtesy of Tougaloo College.

Woodworth Chapel, on the other hand, was the scene of the Social Science Forum, organized by Dr. Ernst Borinski, professor of sociology (1946-83) and a subject of the museum exhibit "From Swastika to Jim Crow" now touring the United States. Guest speakers ranging from the Communist historian Herbert Aptheker to novelist Ralph Ellison, and from economist and ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith to local civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer spoke there. It also housed historic meetings of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Bettersworth even left out the Chinese Baptist Church in Cleveland, with its unique history of providing both a spiritual home and a route for racial upward mobility for this important minority in the Delta. Obviously, to win Dr. Bettersworth's attention, a church did not have to be important, but it did have to be white. And in this enterprise, Bettersworth wrote to please himself. No State Textbook Board loomed over his shoulder.

Although Bettersworth probably never talked with one, his textbooks particularly disadvantaged black students. I found this out when I taught first-year students at Tougaloo College in Mississippi on the first day of the spring semester in January 1969. I asked them, "What was Reconstruction? What images come to your mind about that era?" Sixteen of my seventeen students told me, "Reconstruction was that time, right after the Civil War, when African Americans took over the governing of the Southern states, including Mississippi, but they were too soon out of slavery, so they messed up, and reigned corruptly, and whites had to take back control."

This was straight Bettersworth. In reality, African Americans never took over the Southern states. All Southern states had white governors and all but one had white legislative majorities throughout Reconstruction. Moreover, the Reconstruction governments did not "mess up." Mississippi in particular enjoyed less corrupt government during Reconstruction than at any later point in the century. Across the South, governments during Reconstruction passed the best state constitutions the Southern states have ever had, including their current ones. They started public school systems for both races. The Reconstruction governments tried out various other ideas, some of which proved quite popular.

Unfortunately, my Tougaloo students were good students. They had learned what they had been taught, in all-black high schools with all-black teaching staffs who blindly taught what was in the textbook. Robert Coles's interviewee had told him what happened to black teachers who let slip "that the books are no good."

What must it do to my students, I wondered on that January afternoon, to believe that they were "too soon out of slavery?" That the one time their group stood center-stage in the American past, they "messed up?" It couldn't be good for them.

Glover Moore was very different. His course, "Mississippi and the South," was the one course I audited faithfully during my months at Mississippi State, except when I left to visit other campuses. He had a unique lecturing style. He dictated his notes to the class: "Then in 1866, Andrew Johnson took his case to the people. Then in 1866, Andrew Johnson took his case to the people." I was appalled. Well before 1492, I learned, the Sorbonne had outlawed spending class time doing this sort of thing. Mississippi State students wrote it all down verbatim, without protest. Then Prof. Moore would look up from his notes, smile, and proceed to share a fascinating anecdote from the time that made his staid dictation come alive. All over the room, I could hear clicks as students put down their pens to listen. That's when I picked mine up! Often the source was memorable and important and I took notes as rapidly as I could.

I also asked questions, so I came to Moore's attention as a student who might be worth getting to know. He invited me to a little group, mostly history majors and graduate students but also others, that met occasionally in the late afternoon. In class, Moore's own viewpoint never surfaced. When he presented the words or deeds of Nathan Bedford Forrest, first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan, he sounded like a Klansman. When he told of a leader of the Republican Party during Reconstruction, he sounded like a Republican. He could never have got in trouble for being unsound on segregation, as historian James W. Silver did at Ole Miss, because he was inscrutable. Still, his offering of original sources did give ammunition to any student interested in challenging his/her own prior education. In his afternoon discussion group, Moore was at least interested in my viewpoint — and that of my Carleton peers — on the unfolding events of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss the previous fall. Unlike Jim Silver, Moore did not have the benefit of Meredith's extraordinary courage, which freed white professors at Ole Miss to talk about race much more honestly than was yet possible at Mississippi State.

Not until after I went to Tougaloo College to teach in the fall of 1968 did I learn Glover Moore's true colors. Ironically, it turned out that he too wrote a textbook while teaching at Mississippi State — a very different textbook. In 1969-70 he sent me a copy. Not only did he write it, he published it himself. He titled it Afro-American History. He intended it as a corrective to the usual all-white textbook, including those written by his colleague, John Bettersworth. Moore produced maybe a hundred copies — 8½" x 11", 300 pages long, and amateurishly bound. He provided them free, I think, as a resource for Freedom Schools and teachers who wanted to do better in Mississippi's newly integrated public schools. I skimmed it but did not read it — my impression was that it broke no new ground — but I was moved that he had written it, unbidden. I hope he got it to some people who used it, at least in northeast Mississippi.8

Since I left the campus in March, 1963, my life's path has taken me back to Mississippi State University several times, but always to sociology, not history. Balkanized as are most campuses, that meant that I never saw John Bettersworth or Glover Moore again. I regret that I never told Glover Moore what I thought of him and his work. For that matter, I regret that I never told John Bettersworth what I thought of him and his work. For what it's worth, for whatever you make of it, now I have told you.

As I thought about these men, I found a written image of a “Richard Bone,” a gravestone cutter, useful. You might too. It is by the poet Edgar Lee Masters, from his famous Spoon River Anthology, written about the time that these two historians were born. It ends:

[L]ater, as I lived among the people here,

I knew how near to the life

Were the epitaphs that were ordered for them when they died.

But still I chiseled whatever they paid me to chisel

And made myself party to the false chronicles

Of the stones,

Even as the historian does who writes

Without knowing the truth,

Or because he is influenced to hide it.9

1    I should emphasize that I express my view. This essay is a memoir of my experience with these two historians and an assessment of their impact within the state of Mississippi.Thus I do not review their books intended for a national audience.

2    John K. Bettersworth, Mississippi: Yesterday and Today (Austin: Steck Vaughn, 1964), 222.

3    Robert E. Lee. “Testimony Lee before the Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction,” 2/17/1866, Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1866), 135-6.

4    In addition, an illustration of boys on the deck of a steamboat may include a black boy dancing a jig; since he is just 3/8" tall, we cannot be sure of his race. Bettersworth’s next edition included two photographs of black Mississippians: head-and-shoulder portraits of politician Charles Evers and opera star Leontyne Price.

5    Bettersworth, "After the War Was Over," New York Times, 7/25/1971.

6 Andy Kanengiser, “Outdated Textbooks Give State’s Schools Bad Image,” Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 11/23/1986. According to “Guardians of Historical Knowledge: Textbook Politics, Conservative Activism, and School Reform in Mississippi, 1928-1982,” a Ph.D. dissertation by Kevin B. Johnson (Starkville: MS State, 2014), the state was well mobilized to ensure white supremacist textbooks.

7 This is no longer true. The lead article in The Journal of Mississippi History, 77 #1 (Spring 2010), “The Three R’s – Reading, ‘Riting, and Race: The Evolution of Race in Mississippi History Textbooks,” by Rebecca Miller Davis, 14, 16, 21, 36, and 40, takes Bettersworth’s textbooks to task for providing a pro-owner account of slavery, “the Confederate myth of Reconstruction,” a “vague and scanty” account of the struggle for civil rights, and in general “mythologized history.” About 35 years earlier, Robert B. Moore did so as well: Bettersworth’s book “overtly and covertly reinforces white chauvinism and racism through omission, distortion, and falsification of reality…. Bettersworth repeats the most outdated and discredited myths about Reconstruction, ignoring modern scholarship.” See Robert B. Moore, “Two History Texts: A Study in Contrast” (NYC: Racism and Sexism Resource Center for Educators, 1976), 3, 6. Of course, Moore published in New York City; Davis published in Jackson, Mississippi.

8 Unlike Bettersworth, who did not seem to have advised any doctoral candidates at Mississippi State, Moore advised at least ten.They show a suggestive broadening in topics beginning about 1974. Earlier dissertations did not treat race, except one general history of the Mississippi Choctaws. After 1974 his students took on more controversial topics like “Hodding Carter: Southern Liberal” and “The ‘Loyalist Democrats’ of Mississippi: Challenge to a White Majority.”

9 Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology (Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2007 [1919]), 124.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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