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Historian Charles Sallis Transformed the Teaching of Mississippi’s Story

Mac Gordon

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The recent death of retired Millsaps College professor William Charles Sallis silenced a truthful voice in this state’s ongoing struggles over race and how that subject was originally taught to Mississippi’s public school students.

In “Mississippi Conflict & Change,” Sallis and his co-editor, Tougaloo College professor James Loewen, produced a book that spoke candidly about the state’s torrid racial past and brought new awareness on such issues to school children they’d never heard of or been taught.

The 1974 volume, written for the teaching of 9th-grade students, presented for the first time on a wide scale the many contributions of Black citizens to Mississippi life, but also their harsh treatment by white landlords and officials and their lack of opportunities for education attainment.

In an early chapter, covering a four-year period before the Civil War erupted, the authors wrote: “Mississippi everyday life revolved mainly around ‘King Cotton.’ Most whites worked on small farms or in the small towns; most blacks were slaves on large plantations … Slaves maintained what dignity and family life they could within such a system; so did poor whites.

“Political and social events were dominated by the planter elite, an elite that eventually would lead the state into war,” they wrote.

Their book had to fight its way into Mississippi classrooms, but finally it did. In the year it was published, the State Textbook Commission favored a history textbook written by Mississippi State University history professor John Bettersworth over Sallis’ and Loewen’s just-released text.

The New York Times reported on a contention by the pair that the Bettersworth book, which had been in use in state schools for more than a decade, had fundamentally ignored the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and the contributions of Blacks to the building of Mississippi and that it carried a segregationist orientation.

It wasn’t so much that Sallis and Loewen wanted their book to outright replace Bettersworth’s in classrooms statewide, but simply “for students to have access to the book.”

In time following the rejection of their book by state authorities, “Conflict & Change” did reach a modicum of students but in less than 50 of the state’s 140-plus public school districts. The book was well received among Catholic schools in Mississippi.

Their textbook told stories previously unheard in Mississippi public school history classes for example, of life in the early 20th Century when agriculture and its sharecropping system ruled much of the state. “Children were encouraged to work throughout the year without regard for the importance of completing the school year.” The authors also decried the state’s financial support of its schools, a problem carrying over to the present.

“Black children received especially poor treatment in Mississippi’s school systems. Under the guise of ‘separate but equal’ accommodations, the state required black children to use separate schools that were much poorer than those for white children.”

While bemoaning its lackluster educational system, the authors noted that “even though (Mississippians’) situation often seemed hopeless, the people did not give up.

“… Mississippi’s tradition of creativity in folklore and literature shows what William Faulkner meant when he said in his Nobel Prize speech, ‘I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.’”

At its end, “Conflict’s” editors cast the truth that “the future history of the state cannot be written now with certainty,” but added hopes that “Mississippi could become a land of exciting development” and that the state “could even take the lead … in solving the problem of racial conflict in this country.”

William Charles Sallis died Feb. 5 as a husband, father, scholar, humanitarian and gentleman, all of the highest order.

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