James Loewen, author of “The Lies My Teacher Told Me,” Dies at 79: NPR
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James Loewen, renowned sociologist, public educator and racial justice activist, died Thursday, August 19, 2021 at the suburban hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was the author of several books, including the bestseller My teacher’s lies told me. He was 79 years old.
His death was confirmed by Stephen Berrey, peer and professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan. He says Loewen was diagnosed with bladder cancer about two years ago.
Loewen was born February 6, 1942 in Decatur, Illinois, and based his career on dispelling common myths about racial progress in American history. His goal was to give the public historical tools that he hoped would help people make concrete changes towards racial justice in the present.
Loewen told NPR’s Gene Demby in an interview in 2018 that he decided to write his first high school essay on race and history when he asked a class of students at Tougaloo College, a university historically black near Jackson, Mississippi, what they knew about reconstruction. .
“And what happened to me was an ‘aha’ experience, although you better think of it as an ‘oh no’ experience,” Loewen told NPR. “Sixteen of my 17 students said, ‘Well, the reconstruction was the period right after the civil war when blacks took over the government of the southern states, but they were out of slavery too soon, so they fucked up. and the whites had regained control. “
Loewen said there were “at least three straightforward lies in that sentence”: Black South Americans had, in fact, attempted to run for office and write progressive state constitutions after the Civil War , but they were violently excluded from power by the whites. supremacists in both organized groups like the KKK as well as the Democratic Party.
The book that Loewen wrote in response to this experience, in 1974 Mississippi: Conflict and Change, won the Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Non-Fictional Work of the South in 1976 and garnered positive reviews from outlets including the New York Times, News week, the Harvard Education Review, The nation and the newsletter of the American Historical Association. But the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board refused to buy the book, and several school districts threatened to fire the teachers who taught it. Loewen fought and ultimately won a lawsuit that forced the state to adopt the book, and since then many other Loewen works have become required reading in high school history classes, most notably Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Was Wrong.
Loewen’s most recent work, Cities at sunset, investigated cities where African Americans and other minorities are still threatened with lynching if they stay after dark. He began the book with the goal of documenting about 10 of these cities in his home state of Illinois and about 50 across the country, but ended up finding over 500 in Illinois alone and thousands in all the countries. His colleagues maintain a database that anyone can use to see if their city has a Sundown past. This type of engagement was typical of Loewen, who often left his university office to tour the country, meet educators and develop materials for the K-12 school system, and did his best to ensure that his academic work had tangible benefits for the race justice movements.
“Jim had a special relationship with everyone he met, including those who met him through the pages of his books,” wrote Stephen Berrey, who worked with Loewen on the Sundown Towns project, in a email to NPR. “He could clearly illustrate a problem of injustice, often historical but tied to the present, and motivate the reader or listener to want to take action to resolve it. He had a knack for inspiring others to work with him to speak the truth. on the past and work for social justice in the present. “