Alabama: It’s time for our children to be taught the truth

Billy Field (Photo by Joe Will Field)

Today’s guest columnist is Billy Field.

What’s the first history lesson you ever had?

For me, it was the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. “Yes, mother, I did chop down the cherry tree. I cannot tell a lie.”

Turns out, that story was not true. But parents didn’t tell it for historical fact, they told it for the moral lesson, the importance of telling the truth.

If parents think it is important for their children to tell the truth, then why is it not important, at least for some parents, that their children be taught the truth of history?

When I was in the 4th grade, in 1958, it was our year to learn Alabama history. Our textbook, Know Alabama, told stories about the glory of the antebellum South and the kindness and goodness of slavery. The writer described a day in the life for a young boy (white boy, of course), riding the plantation with his father, both on fine horses, waving to the happy slaves, with clean clothes and perfect teeth, smiling and waving back, content in their way of life.

None of this was true. Sure. There were probably some slave owners who were kindly toward those human beings that they owned, but for the most part, slavery was a living hell. But the elected officials in charge of the story, at least in 1958, wanted us to believe that our ancestors who owned slaves were kind to them and that it was, in some kind of Disney-like way, a good thing.

They taught us that segregation was what God intended, and that reconstruction following the Civil War was awful because of the carpet baggers from the north. But that problem was remedied by another group of brave men who rode by night, only because that’s what they had to do to protect our way of life.

Were the people who told us these stories bad people?

No.

They were good people, mostly, telling us the same story that they had been told.

And I believe that the reason they told us these stories was because they wanted us to grow up to believe that we came from good and noble people so that we might grow up to be good and noble people, too.

There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a worthy cause.

But isn’t it also a worthy cause to tell our young people the truth?

Following the Civil War, Black men had the right to vote and did vote. In the 1870s in Eufaula Alabama, on election day, a group of Black men were marching toward the polls to vote when, along the way, they were ambushed by White men who shot 70 of them, then rode to the headquarters of the White Probate Judge, threw out all the votes that had been cast that day and then murdered the 16-year-old son of the White Probate Judge. None of these men were in any way ever implicated in that crime.

Not only did nobody tell us that story, I can’t find but a handful of people who have ever heard the story, including people from Eufaula.

In 1964, a new county courthouse was being built in Tuscaloosa. A promise had been made to the Black community that there would be no segregated facilities, no White and Colored bathrooms, no White and Colored water fountains. When the courthouse opened, George Wallace was there to cut the ribbon and — you guessed it — the courthouse had “White and Colored” everything.

When the Black community organized a peaceful protest to march to the courthouse, not only did the police show up with helmets and clubs, but the police had also sent letters out to Klan types inviting them to help keep the peace. The Klan types obliged. And on that day, which has come to be known as Bloody Tuesday, more people went to the hospital than went to the hospital on Bloody Sunday in Selma. More people went to jail that day than on Bloody Sunday in Selma, but yet this story has never been taught in any classroom — and few citizens of Tuscaloosa even know that it happened.

But yet now, when there is an effort among some in our state to teach the truth of the history of race in America, there’s enormous pushback.

Politicians and citizens are squalling that there will be no teaching “Critical Race Theory” in Alabama schools. Okay. I don’t even know what “Critical Race Theory” is, but I do know that we have an obligation to teach our young people the truth of history, not some myth that might make us feel better about who we are.

There are only so many generations to whom you can spoon-feed the myth until the truth is long forgotten.

And once the truth is forgotten, then we no longer know who we are.

If I haven’t convinced you, let George Orwell have a try. In his novel, 1984, the character Big Brother says,

“He who controls the past controls the future.”

“He who controls the present controls the past.”

I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t want any elected official controlling the story of my past, because I don’t want any elected official controlling my future.

If you don’t want some elected official controlling your future, then you might think about the value of our young people learning the truth of history, not the myth, even though some of that truth might not be pleasant to hear.

The fictitious story of George Washington and the cherry tree might be okay for a five-year-old, because of the value of the moral lesson. But like The Bible says in First Corinthians, “There comes a time to put away childish things.”

There comes a time to teach our young people the truth of history because it is on that truth that we build our house on solid ground.

It is on that truth that we build our democracy on solid ground.

Billy Field is one of the last people on earth to see the meteor shoot across the sky on November 30, 1954, crash through Ann Hodges’ roof, bounce off her floor radio and hit her on her buttocks, making her famous. Billy sold that story to 20th Century Fox. He has written for 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and the TV series FAME for MGM. He taught screenwriting and documentary film production at The University of Alabama. His student’s films, dealing with Alabama history and Alabama biography, are on their website at LightsCameraAlabama.com. Billy is now building a website designed to tell stories of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, focusing on the work of Alabama Civil Rights lawyer Chuck Morgan.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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54 thoughts on “Alabama: It’s time for our children to be taught the truth”

  1. Thanks for speaking out and showing up Billy. I choose to believe that there are many very good people in our world who know right from wrong, but who stand aside–not wanting to join the fight.

    But you, Billy Field, you are not afraid to speak truth to power. We are richer because of your voice.

  2. Very thoughtful. I offer two points. One. You have reminded me of the first real historian, a Greek man who changed thinking in Greece in the 5th Century, B.C. His idea of replacing poems and songs as the way of telling about history, as Homer did, was to apply actual evidence as in a court of law to judge a case. He witnessed and recorded the events in the Pelopponesian War that Athens won, so, to paraphrase in English, we could avoid such war in the future. So it is very important that truth be known, and not one-sided. but as you seem to think, the entire story. I agree. Incidentally, slavery is ancient, so much so as is it is almost instinctive, and it has taken many forms with many different peoples. I extends from Egypt, to Africa, to Greece, Europe, and another form is tyranny as observed today.

    My other point: with such constantly highly pressed sharp focus on the issue of race as we are now witnessing and connecting to new and terrible actions, we will only make matters worse. That gives us little to no chance to calm things down, relax the pressure and work our way through it. This does not deny it or even mean to suggest that it be skipped. It is right in our faces and it is both ways: Black vs. White and White vs: Black. This bad thing, we must cause it to cease and desist and arrive at complete and combined empathizing acceptance. What you, Billy have written, in my view, gives an open chance to move in that direction. Thank you

  3. I am not from Alabama. I do know and admire Billy Field. I just want to say what a fine and brave piece this. Truth is sacred and so is wisdom. Thanks, Billy.

  4. Thank you, Billy, for this sensitively written article in which you do not castigate the people who’ve written our text books which mis-characterize the institution of slavery but you insist that the truth is of prime importance. I agree with you. We must teach the truth of slavery and of the Civil War and stop painting our leaders at that time as heroes when they led the Southern people into a rebellion against the United States that resulted in the utter devastation of the South.

  5. Thank you, Billy for calling out Alabamians to teach the truth in history. And thank you, David Sher for providing the platform for the reality of our states’ history to be shared. That is what our children should learn, not fairytale stories of plantation owners waving to their happy, smiling slaves. It would be heartless for anyone who hears the true stories, such as Lisa McNair’s about never meeting her sister Denise killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, to not have greater empathy and yearn to know more. Learning the true history may help promote an “antiracist” culture, which we need in Alabama.
    I am looking forward to reading these Alabama biographies and seeing the films of your students. Although they will indeed expose more of our brutal and ugly history, as human beings and parents, I believe we are responsible for teaching factual history to our kids, whether our schools teach it or not.

  6. Nice column Billy but you better learn what critical race theory is because it is even more pernicious than the sanitized version of Alabama history you were taught.

    1. Paul. I agree with you one hundred percent. I am quite certain that ciritical race theory is not all truthful, but selected by what the desire is to tell and to keep that potful of ‘toil and trouble’ astir. Going that way, racism will never even calm down.

      Truth and by that we are freed.

    2. Critical race theory is not a “theory.” It is a graduate law school course, e.g., from Duke University:

      CRT “affords students an opportunity to think about the ways in which racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism are inextricably interwoven as well as an opportunity to challenge critically our most basic assumptions about race, law, and justice.”

      Harvard says “Emerging during the 1980s, critical race scholars made many controversial claims about law and legal education — among them that race and racial inequality suffused American law and society, that structural racial subordination remained endemic, and that both liberal and critical legal theories marginalized the voices of racial minorities. ”

      University of Alabama Law School says: This 2 unit … focuses on critical race theory, a recent movement that examines the relationship among race, racism, and the U.S. legal system. The coverage is broad, including not only legislative and judicial decisions, but also the economics and social science of race, and the affective, or feeling, side of race relations. Through this course and the readings, you will gain an overview of critical race theory and more intensive exposure to certain subtopics, such as the role of history, race and sexuality, colorblindness, stereotyping, crime, and protest rights.”

      UCLA, Columbia, and most notable law schools. basically say the same thing.

      CRT is NOT taught in Alabama middle or senior high schools! Do your research.

      1. I am an Alabama transplant in Kansas, and the “public” comments to the school board in Kansas’ largest city, Wichita, just became berserker decrying CRT.
        [berserker – from OLD NORSE -those who were said to have fought in a trance-like fury]
        Doesn’t it sometimes seem that some people latch onto some nifty acronym or initialism just to have something to be against? …

  7. And so the game keeps being played–don’t study this because it is worse than what it tries to repudiate. Those who have controlled the history of race and the American story should take a pause for a while, and try to see that the distortions of the way we were taught about the history of the South have left, are still creating wounds. So excuse me Paul and Roy for not taking your word on CRT, just because it’s your word.

    1. I actually do not know how you will know about it unless you read it. What I have read about it, CRT, leaves these questions for me. Why is it called ‘Theory?’ What is ‘theory’ ? The definition does not call it ‘fact or truth! Interesting? That does not necessarily tell me that it is better or worse, but it might be just as wrong, but only in the opposite way, perhaps. Such slippery thinking as I have just described appears dangerous to me. That splits us apart doesn’t it? Why not? It is a principle of mine that you can not find the truth unless you are open to it and all understandings or misunderstandings need to be considered in corroborating evidence to reach some truth. I do not know if you will get anywhere if you just brush the remarks of others aside by not taking their word. At least think about it, please. Also I imagine that we are in agreement that to leave the nasty aspects out of true history would be lying. To try to beautify the ugly is also lying. That should not be allowed. I think big new wounds are being created by the terrible non-peaceful riots and protests that have happened recently. Also they are history, and very ugly. We need to rebuild rather than continue destroying.

  8. We’re not all dumb, hateful rednecks here in Alabama. It seems it’s just a lot of us have been fed and have fallen for the “pretty” lies of our past which has engendered the belief in white supremacy. I’m always encouraged when I see articles such as this. They give hope in a better, just and caring Alabama!

    Thank you Billy. Can I call you Billy! LOL

  9. Thank you for your column, Billy. Well-written and certainly time when more people were more educated about Jim Crow and “assumed” W.A.S.P.* supremacy.

    *If one needs to look this up, more education is definitely called for.

  10. Sweet home Alabama, in this state we love each other and are not part of this racial conflict. I have never been taught the lies that the plantation owners were good and the slaves were happy! We were taught the truth. Some were good and some were bad and all of it was wrong. It was a different day and time. We were taught that the civil rights movement was to correct those wrongs that never got completely corrected. Today, we accept that people are people and you are not good or bad based on a color. You are good or bad based on your choices and behavior. But you are right, it is true that all Alabamians don’t care what other people think of us.

  11. A very interesting book as a reference to the early beginnings of the country, having so much to do with the normal lives of their times, is this one: Albion’s Seed, Four British Folkways in America. by David Hackett Fischer. The British Isles sent the first colonists in four waves, well before the revolution, each coming for a different reason and in quite different ways, from different parts of the country to different colonies. Those differences a still noticeable today.

    Also at the time of the revolution, all did not jump right in.
    There were the United Empire Loyalists who went to Canada. Does that ring a bell with the Civil War’s ‘Underground Railroad?’

    Our history is very rich for such a short time period over all. We are complex, and have been from the beginning. Over generalization is extremely dangerous as a frequently observed fallacy in constant use. Be cautious, Be careful. Avoid stirring up unnecessary trouble. And carry on communicating.

  12. Carrying on communicating: This book also tells a not so rich history beginning in 1619-2019. “From journalist Hannah P. Jones on Jamestown’s first slaves to historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s portrait of Sally Hemings to the seductive cadences of poets Jericho Brown and Patricia Smith, Four Hundred Souls weaves a tapestry of unspeakable suffering and unexpected transcendence.” Oprah Magazine
    https://www.google.com/books/edition/Four_Hundred_Souls/HVj2DwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover

    Probably good to read both and compare.

    1. Slaves owners lived all over the globe and have been since the beginnings of human society. One can only think of it as an extension of barbaric human behavior. When Jamestown was founded. Great Britain had slaves. They ended it and without segregation earlier that the USA. Segregation truly was a very unpleasant extension of it.

      1. That’s not an alibi, is it? It doesn’t change the short term and longterm psychological and sociological effects on a people just because slavery was common.

    2. Slavery has been a human activity since he beginings of human society. I is barbaric . It is global. Great Britain had slavery when Jamestown was started. They got rid of it before the USA did, and without segregation I don’t really know enough to say much about its aftermath there. Segregation and tenant farming were nasty extensions that dragged it out for too long, keeping its wounds from fully healing.

      In my view civilization can not be considered complete until all of that is gone.

      I should learn more about what that study in the referenced book tells. Thank you for that.

  13. A thoughtful essay. But to clarify, the history of African Americans in Alabama—from slavery to Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement—is very much part of the Alabama Course of Study in Social Studies. Alabama history isn’t taught as a separate course beyond 4th grade, but it’s integrated into 10th and 11th grade American history. Of course, not every event or individual is included; teachers always have to choose what to cover in an American history course. Here’s the 11th grade section that includes the Civil Rights Movement: https://alex.state.al.us/standardAll.php?ccode=US11&subject=SS2010&summary=3

    Second, there’s an outstanding teacher training and curriculum development project on the history of the Movement in Alabama. It’s been offered for more than ten years. “Stony the Road We Trod,” developed by Birmingham educator Martha Bouyer, has served more than 1,300 teachers from 45 states and 5 foreign countries. They visit sites of memory in Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. I haven’t observed any of the institutes in several years; however, I’m confident the scholars leading the sessions address CRT, and they offer teachers effective tools to answer questions about the topic in the classroom.

    Lastly, there are innumerable outstanding works of Alabama history by scholars within and outside the state. Many deal with Civil Rights history in Alabama. A few of these distinguished historians and their relevant works are shown in the Stony the Road We Trod project description. On the other hand, if anyone wants their state history presented in bite-size fashion, the http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/ is a first-rate resource. EOA is one of the few comprehensive, authoritative online state encyclopedias in the country. Take some time to explore EOA, which marked its 13th anniversary yesterday since its launch in 2008,

    1. A truly outstanding addition to this posting. Thank you Robert Stewart. I did not know this, and I a delighted to learn about it from you. Thanks

      Another good book is “Alabama, The Making of and American State’ by Edwin Bridges, Former Direct of the Alabama Derpartment of Archives and History. I learned much that i had never known
      from his book. Did you know that the first treaty signed by George Washington was with the Creek Indians who walked from Alagama to meet President Washington to sign it.
      Our new country almost immediately disregarded it,, As I have already said, Alabama’s history is extremely complex and very interesting filled with troubles and survival .

    2. You missed the point. What is being done….what is available…isn’t enough to make amends. I want to feel clean and in good balance with ethics and morals as a country. It is time. Honesty MUST be a baseline. And growing up here in Georgia, if that’s the best history books we have, we need an update. Some pages are missing.

  14. Thank you Billy Field, David Sher for this Comeback. As a Senior Citizen, I continue to seek answers as to why the FBI interviewed me at 11 years old in 1965 wanting to know why 50 sticks of dynamite were in my parent’s parking space when we arrived at Church for Mass. Maybe they still don’t know, since most of the 300+ page report I reviewed recently is redacted. Understanding our past is important to know where we stand today.

    1. Your part in this history is so important. It is almost missing, but with hope such a thing never happens again, we should be reminded. Thank you Jacque! Even the KKK terrorism that fired up racism so badly. Unfortunately remnants still might remain.
      Another memory not to arise again in action, but to be remembered to help us resist it.
      Thank you for the reminder. It is important.

  15. Thanks for this interesting piece. I have read a good bit about our history and am consistently amazed that there is always something to learn! I had no idea that the Eufala and Tuscaloosa events happened. I know of other white uprisings during reconstruction but had never heard about this one. The story that does not get told enough is the one about white resistance to civil and economic rights for Black people during Reconstruction and later during the Civil Rights Movement. This white resistance ran deep and constant across the South. Maybe they were good people but they did very bad work. We have a wonderful resource here in Alabama to learn all this painful history. Here is an article abut the new museum opening in Montgomery. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/19/the-legacy-museum-america-racist-history

    1. Renee, I was not aware of this new museum. I clicked on the link and was amazed. It brought several thoughts.

      One: with this, such bad behavior will not be forgotten.

      Two: I am a professor, a Dean twice, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects as well, with a deep interest in all history, my home being Alabama, Birmingham. The architecture of that new museum is truly impressive. History: throughout the south, including Alabama, among the best designed and built plantation houses were designed and built by black me. Some were given freedom as a result. Alabama is full of outstandingly beautiful architecture, old and new, classical and modern. It is somewhat secret, not very widely known or published.

      Three: Read the book by Bridges I have recommended, there are others . I hesitate, given today’s hot and steamy political climate, but in that book you will read who the political supporters of the terrible parts of Alabama’s worst were, and who the opposing people were. There is an image of a stolen ballot box too. A deeply historical desire was alive in a large proportion of Alabama’s white population that had good reason to dislike slavery.

  16. I too remember that textbook, “Know Alabama,” from my 8th grade Alabama History class. Sixty years later, I still remember its … uh … creative historical treatment of of the Golden Age of the antebellum South and the evils of Reconstruction. But what I remember most strongly is its reporting — and my teacher’s emphasizing — that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Oh no, not at all. It was fought over “state sovereignty.”

    It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that that was a lie. Perhaps it was taught to us because, as Billy suggests, adults “wanted us to grow up to believe that we came from good and noble people so that we might grow up to be good and noble people.” But it was/is still a lie — inconsistent with our becoming good and noble people.

    1. George Wallace, that infamous Governor that deepened the state’s bad reputation, often demanded ‘States Rights!’ He also too often used ‘so-called’ applied to things he did not like. Voters probably thinking of having been taught to believe that was likely the cause of the Civil War and the begining of the confederacy, state sovereignty. Yes it might have been actually, but because that would have been allowing the states that wanted slavery to continue to keep slavery as legal.
      Another idea has been the politics of wealth envy by northern states, Mississippi and Alabama at time being the two wealthiest states in the country. That wealth was based on cotton plantation income and slavery. They were extremely more wealthy than many northern states.

  17. Billy, thanks for this excellent, revelatory article. I admire your writing as well as your dedication to truth seeking and truth telling. Keep up the good work.

  18. Excellent article and well written. Alabama needs a constriction act to clean his past and reputation, and start investing on a more inclusive future.

    1. Except for being unclear about what you mean by ‘inclusive’ I agree. If you mean race issue free, I do agree. I think more broadly than you I guess. Start investing in a better future, go after making everything better. Excellent article and indeed well written.

  19. Thank you for writing this article! We’ll never be together until we can honestly deal with the truth about our shared history.

  20. Very good essay and discussion. We have to learn and explore all the history, good and bad, so that we can do better as we move forward.

  21. Is it true that Critical Race Theory teaches young impressionable children to hate based on skin color? If so, that’s not exactly what Dr. King advocated.

    1. Basic and so true. Thank you

      We much keep studying, researching, learning as much as we can, and sharing it as widely as possible, The results of ignorance is unbearable, much more so than knowing and bearing with the truth.

      1. Thhis has been a very useful posting encouraging deeper thinking and further knowledge resulting. Thank you, everyone!

  22. Very well written and said. Part of making amends from sins of the past is making genuine, effective efforts to undo damage caused.

    This is the best post I have ever seen on this site.

  23. When I first met my husband, Rev Richard C. Boone, one of the first places he took me was to Tuscaloosa. He told me of a great man, Rev T. Y. Rogers who was ordained by Dr M L King. He told me of how Rev James Bevel, Harold Middlebrook, and he were summons by Dr King to go to Tuscaloosa to intervene and support the Tuscaloosa movement. He told of how they drove there in a green rambler only to have flat tires and had to be rescued by a neighbor in an old Ford truck. The lone news reporter there asked how they made it through because the clans were waiting fir them?
    I tell this history often and not to my surprise people did not know that bloody Tuesday happened the year before Bloody Sunday. Two M L K quotes will remain with me for the rest of my life. One day America will know it’s true heroes. The arch of the moral universe bends slowly towards justice.

  24. Billy, i believe that you are in a particularly useful position to tell the stories that the masses will “hear.” Judging from my grandchildren, and my elementary-teacher-step-daughter, things are already more realistically available than when we were in school.
    I was lucky that my Daddy was always talking about the shame of the civil war, over changes that should have been obvious. When I was 9 he shouted down a twice-his-size policeman who “dared’ to chastise me when I lifted a little black girl up to get a drink from the water fountain I was drinking from. That was the first time I ever knew there were separate water fountains marked “colored.”

  25. I know this is a months-old thread, but seems the right time to comment on the recent book-banning of MAUS – about Holocaust survival …. a graphic novel that has won numerous awards – written for kids…. hurts my heart. I haven’t been through it yet, but getting my own copy and ordering for the grandkids.

  26. This is interesting information for Alabama. we were never taught of the 1866 freedmen treaty signed by non other than the famous rebel non conforming county of Winston Ala. It is the original Native American History . it describes in exact detail of the true intentions backed by good faith & Hope for Alabama to live peacefully as a unit. But unfortunately ??

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