A letter to lawmakers seeking to outlaw the teaching of history
Remember Solomon Blatt Sr.
A note: I’m publishing a day early this week because I want to encourage you to write your own letter to the South Carolina House Education & Public Works Committee. The committee will meet Wednesday, an hour after the House adjourns, to consider Bills 4325, 4343, 4392, 4605, and 4799, which all seek to restrict the speech of teachers and forbid the teaching of history that makes white people uncomfortable.
The agenda for the meeting is here. If you would like to submit testimony against these bills, you can email a statement to Administrative Assistant Ginger Lee at GingerLee@schouse.gov. My letter is copied below, with photos added from The State Newspaper Photograph Archive for educational purposes.
I’ll also be writing a letter to the Senate Education Committee in opposition to Senate Bill 935, also up for discussion on Wednesday, which would create “Education Savings Accounts” in order to funnel public funds to private schools. According to the state’s own fiscal impact statement, this bill could siphon off as much as $2.9 billion per year from public schools, compounding the damage the state already does by shortchanging the Base Student Cost by a half-billion dollars per year. The email addresses of all Senate Education Committee members can be found here.
To the South Carolina House Education & Public Works Committee:
You are gathered today to consider a pile of bills that would each, in their own way, stifle the speech of teachers and impoverish South Carolinians’ understanding of history for generations to come. The bills in question are House Bills 4325, 4343, 4392, 4605, and 4799.
Take a look around. You are meeting in a monumental Brutalist building named in honor of longtime South Carolina House Speaker Solomon Blatt Sr., who represented Barnwell in the legislature from 1933 until his death in 1986. As the most powerful man in state politics for half a century, Sol Blatt made racist statements throughout his public career, cast his lot with segregationists as a leader of White Citizens’ Councils, and constructed our state’s racist education system that replaced the era of de jure segregation with one of white resistance and de facto segregation.
I would like to review some facts about Speaker Blatt and the state he built that would become forbidden knowledge in our schools if you were to pass the odious bills before you today.
House Bill 4325 states that schools may not require students to “personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to any of the tenets of critical race.” I assume this refers to “critical race theory,” a scare word that right-wing pundits have wielded cynically to terrify senior citizens for the last year or so. You are intelligent people. You understand the game.
It is a shame that cable news commentators have dragged the name of critical race theory through the mud, because the actual field of scholarship to which it refers would be helpful for understanding our political moment. It is a lens for understanding the world that men like Solomon Blatt created.
Critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship that developed after the civil rights era to analyze the role of race and racism in the U.S. legal system. It sought to answer questions such as why, after legal segregation was struck down by the courts, inequality persisted along racial lines in this country. Might there be structural injustices built into our systems of education, employment, policing, courts, and incarceration?
There are. This body, the South Carolina General Assembly, has done everything in its power to construct and maintain those structures of injustice. Here is how the University of South Carolina’s Presidential Commission on University History described Speaker Blatt’s role:
In anticipation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, South Carolina established a fifteen-member school committee to plan the legal challenge to court-ordered integration. Five of these seats were hand-picked by Blatt, and all were ardent segregationists. After Brown, the South Carolina legislature enacted legislation at a “mass production rate.” By 1958, the legislature enacted 28 laws opposing desegregation or defending segregation. Blatt was speaker of the House during this period. 1
Moving on to House Bill 4343, the “South Carolina Academic Integrity Act” would provide that school staff may not create or participate in courses that teach “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.” But the myth of meritocracy is in fact one of the more pernicious lies permeating our education system today — particularly at our flagship university, where Solomon Blatt wielded tremendous power throughout his career as a lawmaker and board member.
At one time during Reconstruction, the University of South Carolina was revolutionary in its insistence that it served South Carolinians of all races. Recognizing the inequities of our then-nascent grade school system, radical Black Republicans including William James Whipper and Francis Lewis Cardozo abolished tuition, opened enrollment to all, and created college preparatory courses to help Black scholars succeed. This brief window of justice was closed by the time white conservatives under the leadership of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman rewrote the state constitution in 1895, lowering our standard of education from “a liberal and uniform system of free public schools” to the “minimally adequate” standard we enjoy today.
In 1937, when the NAACP threatened a lawsuit on behalf of a Black applicant to the University of South Carolina School of Law, Solomon Blatt was on the board of trustees. He issued the following statement:
The white people of South Carolina need not have any fear as to what the outcome of this application is going to be. The Board of Trustees will do everything in their power to maintain the University for white students only, and in so doing, will protect the other institutions for white students supported by the state. 2
Blatt stalled and crushed dissent, going as far as to call for the firing of psychology professor Joseph Margolis when he criticized segregation in print. As the Briggs v. Elliott desegregation case in Clarendon wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court as a part of the Brown decision, Blatt and his fellow segregationists saw the writing on the wall and changed tactics.
They were ready. On May 27, 1954 — 10 days after the Brown decision — university board members and Blatt’s friend the university president Donald Russell adopted a new admissions policy requiring all applicants to submit standardized-test scores. The historian R. Scott Baker described this policy as a not-too-subtle brake on integration and the first in a series of copycat policies that swept Southern universities:
When Russell presented the proposal to the USC faculty on May 27, 1954, one professor, echoing the sentiments of colleagues on other southern campuses, asked Russell, “let’s face it, Mr. President. Is it not true that these entrance examinations are, in reality, being introduced as a means of keeping out Negro applicants?” Russell acknowledged that the new admissions policy would allow the university to “legally exclude students” by establishing “a system of entrance examinations that are not based on racial standards” …
[T]he wave of testing that swept through the South after Brown was clearly designed to rationalize restrictions that had been based on race … School officials used test results to expand tracking, the separation of students on the basis of presumed ability. 3
Today just 8% of students at UofSC are Black. Even the barest acknowledgements of injustice, and even the weakest tools of redress through race-conscious admissions, are constantly under attack by you, your colleagues in the legislature, and your enablers in the courts.
House Bill 4392, hilariously dubbed the Keep Partisanship Out of Civics Act, states: “A teacher may not be compelled by a policy of a state agency, school district, or school administration to affirm a belief in anything characterized as the systemic nature of racism, or like ideas…”
I’ll tell you a story about the systemic nature of racism.
Solomon Blatt Sr. was a genuinely interesting person from a biographer’s perspective. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he overcame considerable prejudice in his rural Southern community only to rise to the heights of power and impose a racist regime on his Black neighbors. “I am a living example of the tolerance of the people of this great state,” he once boasted. When he died, the Charlotte Observer memorialized him as an “obstructionist racist politician who did his best to stop blacks from getting equal rights.”
Blatt became a leader in the South Carolina Association of Citizens’ Councils, a league of respectable segregationist power brokers. He was the first speaker when the association held a packed meeting down the street from where you sit at the Township Auditorium on Jan. 26, 1956. Other celebrity speakers at that meeting included the segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, the segregationist Gov. James F. Byrnes, and the segregationist Charleston News and Courier editor Thomas R. Waring Jr. This group polished off the foul coprolite known as John C. Calhoun’s nullification theory, renamed it “interposition” and waved it around to ward off desegregation orders, and used propaganda and intimidation to attack NAACP members across the state.
The historian Claudia Smith Brinson tells us how they terrorized people who signed petitions for desegregation:
Local white-owned newspapers published the names of petitioners, who were instantly fired from jobs, occasionally with the promise they could return if they removed their names. A few petitioners did — and didn’t get back their jobs. WCC members extended their punishment to petitioners’ family members, firing spouses and firing and evicting relatives of petitioners, and refusing sales of seed and use of farm equipment to rural petitioners and their relatives. 4
The White Citizens’ Councils lost, on paper. The court ordered desegregation in the 1954 Brown decision, and by the 1970s, even the most resistant school boards in Greenville and Charleston counties had technically allowed desegregation to occur.
South Carolina’s version of “massive resistance” didn’t end there. In part through policies of “school choice,” the creation of private segregation academies, and the careful redrawing of attendance lines, our state has plunged many of its students back into schools marked by stark segregation and inequality. According to a 2020 analysis by the Greenville News, 1 in 7 South Carolina schools had a student population that was at least 90% white or 90% minority. 5 We still fail to meet the miserably low mark of “minimally adequate” education for all children as outlined in the state Supreme Court’s Abbeville v. South Carolina decision.
How to describe such a system that transcended and subsumed the personal prejudices of individual actors while cementing inequality for generations to come? How to describe the vast disparities of income, healthcare, education, and incarceration that persist to this day along the same racial lines? What is the term for the thing these men perpetuated, if not systemic racism? And you would have us keep this a secret from our children, under penalty of law.
House Bill 4799 bans the use of the New York Times’ 1619 Project as a classroom material. This is censorship and should be treated as such.
There is a historic resonance here with the wave of censorship that accompanied Solomon Blatt’s mid-century legislative crusade. Speaking broadly about white backlash to desegregation in the 1950s, the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote, “All over the South, the lights of reason and tolerance and moderation began to go out under the resistance and demand for conformity … [B]ooks were banned, libraries were purged, newspapers were slanted, magazines disappeared from stands, television programs were withheld, and films were excluded.” 6
H. 4799 also contains a vague and inaccurate definition of critical race theory, as well as an aggressive enforcement mechanism: “If a public school violates any provisions of this chapter, all students in the school district are entitled to attend any public or private school in the State and the home district must transfer an amount equal to the base student cost to the school the student chooses to attend."
Your colleagues are proposing that we rob the public to fund private schools. Solomon Blatt and his friends on the White Citizens’ Councils are smiling from their graves at you. It was Gov. James F. Byrnes who proposed in 1952 that the state abandon its public school system altogether rather than desegregate.
House Bill 4605 claims that it is a “discriminatory concept” that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion, or political belief…”
Let me say this simply: Comfortable history for white people is state propaganda. Punishing teachers for the crime of teaching uncomfortable history is state censorship. Additionally, the “Dont’ Say Gay” provisions in this bill, copied from near-identical legislation in Florida and elsewhere, are a deliberate and dangerous attack on LGBTQ youth.
Late in life, Sol Blatt may have felt some compunction about the racist beliefs and policies that defined his career. By some accounts he softened his public views and halfway repented when he voted to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday. But that changed nothing for the generations of Black South Carolinians whose rights he had discarded for political gain.
The authors of the bills before you today may find repentance later in life, too. While that may be good for their souls, it will do nothing for the teachers they betrayed and the children they cheated out of a comprehensive education.
You are all little Solomon Blatts. You are hemmed in by a regime of white supremacy that you yourselves did not create, and you daily face a decision: Will you build up that system, or will you do your part to tear it down?
North Charleston, S.C.
Final Report of the Presidential Commission on University History, Appendix 11: Research Reports on Building Names - Blatt Physical Education Center (July 16, 2021).
Timothy D. Renick, “Solomon Blatt: ‘A Segregationist in Moderation?’” The Proceedings of The South Carolina Historical Association (1991), p. 62
R. Scott Baker, Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), p. 132-136.
Ariel Gilreath, “It's not policy anymore, but 1 in 7 South Carolina schools remain segregated.” Greenville News, Feb. 17, 2020.
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Second Revised Edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 165-166.