VOICES: Teaching truth in the face of book bans

A Black woman wearing a black t-shirt holds out a microphone for another older Black woman who is seated and wearing a red t-shirt to speak into. They are at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. A sign that reads "Defend Black Studies" lays in the corner.

Judy Richardson, a civil rights veteran and film producer based in Maryland, spoke at a "Teach Truth Day of Action" hosted by the Zinn Education Project at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. on June 10. The event, which featured marches and book swaps, aimed to counter book banning and censorship. (Image is a still from this Teaching for Change video.)

The movement to ban and remove books from public schools has seen unprecedented growth in recent years. In 2022, the American Library Association documented more than 2,500 attempts to ban titles, double the number recorded in 2021 and the most since the organization began to track book censorship data more than two decades ago. Under the guise of flagging material deemed inappropriate for children, the targets of these attempts have frequently been people of color and LGBTQ+ authors, and works that feature discussions of race, gender, and sexual orientation. 

Florida, South Carolina, and Texas have been among the states with the most aggressive efforts to ban books, according to an analysis by PEN America, a free expression advocacy group.

Book censorship has grown hand in hand with proposed laws and rules to limit what can be taught in classrooms. Since January 2021, what some have called "anti-history" proposals have been considered in 44 states – including all 13 in the South – limiting how teachers can talk about racial discrimination, according to an Education Week analysis.

On June 10th, the Zinn Education Project, coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, organized almost 100 "Teach Truth Day of Action" events across the country. The events featured walking tours, gatherings at historic sites, pledges, marches, and book swaps to counter efforts to censor books and curtail the teaching of history.

Judy Richardson is a civil rights veteran who worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. As film producer, Richardson also worked on the seminal PBS histories of the civil rights movement, "Eyes on the Prize" and "Eyes on the Prize II," as well as the award-winning documentary "Malcolm X: Make it Plain." Along with five other SNCC veterans, she edited the book, "Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC." 

Richardson spoke at a "Teach Truth" rally in Washington, D.C., and contributed copies of "Hands on the Freedom Plow" as part of a "contraband book drive." Below are her full remarks.

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"Hands on the Freedom Plow" is the kind of book that those like [Florida] Gov. DeSantis and way too many others want to ban.

"Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC" includes the personal accounts of 52 SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] women — women like Diane Nash and Bernice Johnson Reagon [founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock] and Joyce Ladner and Dottie Zellner and Maria Varela, women in SNCC who were mainly in their late teens when they were making what John Lewis, SNCC's chair, called: "Good trouble." And these women were not just the troops, they were the leaders in the expansion of democracy that was the Civil Rights Movement.

Our book shows that regular folks really can organize to change the racist, anti-gay, anti-human conditions we face.

In "Hands on the Freedom Plow" you hear directly from SNCC women. They talk about their own experiences, including the influence of local leaders — like Mrs. Gray in Hattiesburg and Mama Dolly Raines in Southwest Georgia and Gloria Richardson in Cambridge, Maryland — strong local leaders who guided and guarded us. These are empowering stories, for all young people! And because they're empowering, these are the stories the fascists don't want you to teach.

In 1964, when Frank [Smith] and I were in Mississippi with SNCC, it was SNCC's Charlie Cobb who came up with the idea of Freedom Schools. We wanted to overturn the way Mississippi — and much of the country, South and North — taught history. In the South, the Civil War was referred to as "The War of Northern Aggression" (probably still is in some places).

In the North, it was taught that only the South had enslavement. And when I learned about Reconstruction — growing up in suburban Tarrytown, New York, just 45 miles north of New York City — I learned about it in my AP history class, where I was the only Black student.

The three paragraphs on Reconstruction were in a textbook that only used illustrations taken directly from the Klansman — the book on which that horrible, white supremacist film, "Birth of a Nation", was based. I and my white classmates didn't learn about all the incredible reforms mandated by those Reconstruction state legislatures, including free public education that was made available not just to Black people, but to poor white children who'd previously been denied it.

No! Both I and my white classmates were taught that Reconstruction was corrupt and dysfunctional. The message was clear: This is what happens when Black folks are placed in any position of power. My white classmates looked over their shoulders at me, and I couldn't even look up from my desk. I was so embarrassed.

White supremacists say they want to protect their children from feeling bad about racism. What about the pain Black children have felt for decades as we were consistently fed lies and distortions about this country's history?

That's what DeSantis and [Texas Gov. Gregg] Abbott and the Moms for Liberty and the whole kit and caboodle of them want to take us back to: a time when the history was even more whitewashed, so we don't have the facts — the truth — that will help us make sense of the issues we're dealing with today.

Now, we know white supremacists don't want Black and brown young people to know this history. But they also don't want white children to know this history: to know about the many ways vibrant Black and brown communities were decimated, to know about systemic racism, and about the ways those communities continue to organize against those injustices. About the fact that state legislators who deny Medicaid expansion are hurting more white people than Black people.

Because then those white children will start to wonder what other lies they've been told, what other history has been hidden from them. And once their own children begin questioning, that genie can't be put back in the bottle. I remember when I taught at Brown University. Students would come up to me in class and tell me that they'd gone to the best schools, but they hadn't been taught the history they were learning in my class. And they were mad!

And that's why white supremacists are so frightened and so violent. They know they're losing.

They also know that if young people — children of color and white children — see themselves in this history — in Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and Julian Bond and Anne Braden and Betty Garman Robinson and Maria Varela — then they'll know that they can change things, too — just like the youth leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. That's why young people like Maxwell Alejandro Frost and Justin Jones and Justin Pearson and Ash-Lee Woodard and so many other young activists have grounded themselves in this history — the truth-telling history —  and been energized by it.

I'll quote Ella Baker, the legendary organizer and SNCC's mentor. She was the person who called the young sit-in students together at her alma mater, Shaw University, for that first meeting of what became SNCC. At that first meeting she tells the students they're not just fighting to integrate lunch counters so they can eat a hamburger there, that's nothing. They're fighting so folks have enough money to afford the hamburger — and she means everyone, because it's always about the expansion of rights for everyone. It was always about economic justice.

So Ms. Baker said: "I'm part of the human family. What the human family will accomplish, I can't control. But somewhere down the line the numbers increase, the tribe increases. So how do you keep on? I can't help it …I believe that the struggle is eternal. Somebody else carries on."

And that's the truth. And that's why the fascists can't stop us! It's why the fascists won't win!

(Correction: This story was updated on June 29 to clarify the relationship between Zinn Education Project, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.)