In 1959, Virginia’s Prince Edward County shut down its entire public school system, instead using tax money to support all-white private “academies,” an attempt to thwart the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision ruling that segregation in public schools is illegal.
Prince Edward County made no provision for the education of Black students, and their parents were forced to scramble, setting up classrooms in church basements and storefronts.
The closure was the latest strategy in a statewide campaign dubbed “Massive Resistance.” Earlier in the year, the Virginia legislature repealed the law requiring children to go to school.
“The only places on Earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras — and Prince Edward County, Virginia,” said Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, trying to shame Prince Edward County into reopening its schools. That took five years.
It’s an important story to know. Bigotry is primal, and those afflicted hurt not only others, but also themselves: limiting their own experience, discarding their own values, shutting their own schools.
The massive resistance continues. Tuesday’s key gubernatorial race in Virginia pivoted on race, with former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, who left office in 2018, losing to private equity manager Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who campaigned on the promise to keep critical race theory from being taught in Virginia schools.
Critical race theory isn’t taught in Virginia public schools. It’s a graduate-school level approach to history arguing that race intrudes upon just about everything in public life. Which of course it does, as evidenced by the Republican Party seizing the phrase as their latest code for keeping Black people down, their reductio ad absurdum argument being that if you teach an accurate history of race in America, well, it spoils everything.
“We will not teach our children to view everything through the lens of race,” said Youngkin, who doesn’t seem to understand that white supremacy is doing precisely that. If I were to edit that statement for accuracy, what Youngkin really means is “We will not teach our children to view anything through the lens of non-white races.” But Republicans like to trot out the sanitized version of their more loathsome beliefs, the way they label their attempts to fraudulently steal future elections as an effort against voter fraud. Fooling themselves if nobody else.
Honestly, I’m not bothered by Republicans, who at least are consistent, so much as by Democratic leadership. It doesn’t help that Democrats in Illinois took this moment to disgorge their own typically heavily gerrymandered Congressional map, a reminder that Dems aren’t so much opposed to corrupting the election process as we are not nearly as good at it.
But what can we do? As I told my boys growing up: “Quitting is not a success strategy. You can’t quit your way to the top.” Here is where knowing history — real history — is a leg up. It reminds us we’ve been in far worse places than this and somehow gotten out of them. Are we divided now? We had a bloody Civil War. Is voting undercut? No matter how badly the voting process is undermined, it won’t become as bad as it was in large swatches of the country when I was in kindergarten. Women did not have the right to vote for the first 132 years the United States held elections. They won’t have had the vote for 132 years until 2052.
People who fear history are outing themselves. If you cringe to see World War II recounted, maybe it’s because you’re a closet Nazi, and are uncomfortable seeing the fruit of your philosophy on display. If America’s racial history makes you squirm, maybe it’s because you’re a bigot and aren’t happy about the arc of history, as Dr. King said, bending toward justice. Justice for other people, that is.
All these struggles are long, difficult, and frightening. A healthy terror at this moment shows clear-eyed awareness of just how bad things have been before, how badly our national life is going now, and how much worse it could be in the future. Particularly if the people who try to cast the Jan. 6 insurrection as a toga party gone wrong return to power. That isn’t a reason to surrender. Too many people gave too much for too long for any patriotic American to consider giving up on our country’s cherished traditions now.