The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thanks to conservative politicians and the media, the education wars echo the 1960s

The debate once again centers on — and stokes — White parents’ anxieties.

Angela Davis speaking at the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation event at the Boutwell Auditorium on Feb. 16, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. (Andi(cq)Rice/The Washington Post)
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Republican Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia’s governor’s race has ensured that the education wars will be front and center for the 2022 midterm elections.

At their root, these debates center on what children learn about the history of racism in the United States and its legacies. Some White parents worry that their children will learn to hate America and the values that they teach at home. These fears, however, are based less in reality than in skewed perceptions fanned by conservative politicians and inflamed by media coverage, which focuses on the potential damage to White children. And these battles are nothing new. In fact, the fight in 2021 carries eerie echoes of cases from the late 1960s.

In the 1960s, universities grew more diverse. Policies such as the Higher Education Act (1965) and the implementation of open admissions programs at universities (1970), expanded access to higher education for students of color, lower-class Whites and women.

As these schools grew more diverse, student activists, such as the Third World Liberation Front, demanded a curriculum that better reflected the diversity of the United States and decentered European and Anglo experiences. These demands fueled a pitched battle on campuses over “multiculturalism” that pitted these activists against conservative school boards. Flexing their political muscle, boards struck back by terminating Black faculty for radical views on race.

For example, in 1968, politicians, including California Gov. Ronald Reagan (R), called for San Francisco State to rescind the appointment of George Murray, an English instructor and Black Panther. In a news conference that aired on San Francisco’s CBS station, Murray claimed that radical Black educators were being attacked because Black people were “trying to educate the masses” about how to create a more equitable society. Murray used the Vietnam War as an example of how White policymakers forced Black, Mexican and poor White soldiers to fight, what he considered, a “racist war” against other people of color. For Murray, teaching about racism, colonialism and imperialism could foster solidarity among students across racial and ethnic lines.

Although Murray’s courses were popular, the board of trustees forced San Francisco State President Robert Smith to fire him.

Murray’s dismissal ignited student demonstrations demanding a Black Studies program. Reagan denounced the protesters as “criminal anarchists and latter-day fascists.” He publicly chastised professors for teaching “left-wing propaganda” and advocated that tax dollars should not be spent on higher education. This rhetoric stoked White angst about what was happening on campuses. And the media didn’t help matters. In covering the events, NBC News’ Chet Huntly reported that Reagan did “not oppose black courses in state schools, but he thinks that they should be run by white people.”

The following year, UCLA ignited another skirmish when it hired 25-year-old Angela Davis, a member of a Black branch of the Communist Party. Before Davis even assumed her position, the Board of Regents, made up of Reagan appointees, tried to fire her. Davis, however, challenged her termination and won because of action the Regents had taken in 1969 that determined political tests could not factor into the appointment of faculty members.

But the battle was far from over as Davis prepared to teach “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature.”

The U.C. regents intended to sabotage her enrollments by declaring that students could not take Davis’s courses for credit, but the move only made them more alluring to rebelling students. The Black Student Union posted fliers about her seminar to draw support, which resulted in an overcrowded lecture hall for Davis’s first class on Fredrick Douglass.

Davis’s politics made her an easy target, enabling Reagan and other politicians to couch criticism in anti-communist rhetoric and deflect accusations of racism. Yet, the hundreds of viciously racist letters she received in her year at UCLA proved that critics were concerned about more than her communist affiliation. Numerous letters used racial slurs and demanded Davis “go back to Africa.” Writers frequently drew bones, lip plates and fangs over Davis’s photo in newspaper clippings, associated her Afro with primitivism and accused her of being a cannibal. And they belittled Davis’s accomplishments, claiming that desegregation had lowered the academic bar to accommodate Black people like her.

Intense media coverage of the battle over Davis’s employment shaped these hateful missives. The exact number of students in her class is unclear, but newspapers played on anxieties about a young Black professor indoctrinating White students by inflating numbers. The Chicago Tribune reported that over 1,000 students attended her first lecture, while The Washington Post claimed it was over 1,900 students, and the New York Times increased the estimate to over 2,000. Moreover, reports frequently commented on the “mostly white students” who attended and applauded Davis’s lectures, while also accentuating her attractiveness — including describing her miniskirts — to make the whole spectacle more salacious.

A diverse crowd of students attended Davis’s first class, yet the media continued to highlight White attendees. NBC’s Nightly News included a lengthy report with scenes of Davis’s first day on campus, followed by images of White students filing into the lecture hall. Reporter Jack Perkins framed the event as a generational battle between J. Edgar Hoover, who considered communists a grave threat to the United States, and students who thought communism was “a bore” and “irrelevant.”

Considering the omission of students of color in the news report, viewers got the message that it was White students who found the moral wrongs of communism immaterial to Davis’s ability to teach. These images fueled White parents’ anxiety about what their children learned on campus, particularly about the limits of capitalism for non-White people around the world.

Davis received a deluge of mail after the NBC report — over 50 percent of the hate mail she received during her battle with the regents. Letter writers picked up on the visual cues and protested how their tax dollars were being used to indoctrinate White students. As one woman frantically wrote, she believed Davis “brainwashed” her sister who, after taking her course at UCLA, only wanted to talk about “the importance of self-sacrifices and of devoting one’s life to helping the poor and oppressed escape their chains.”

Many critics also decried how the media coverage put Davis on a pedestal in the eyes of America’s youths and turned another Black radical into an “instant star.”

At their root, these fears came not from the specifics of what Davis taught, but rather from the assumption that learning about the dark side of United States history — racism, colonialism and imperialism — would make students un-American. Many people also noted that Davis’s teaching would exacerbate racial tensions, not assuage them. The media’s salacious coverage, along with the incendiary rhetoric of politicians like Reagan, helped shape these assumptions, costing Davis her job after a year.

In 2021, the panic over teaching critical race theory — a concept critics do not understand but fear will corrupt children — in public schools is echoing the fracas over Angela Davis at UCLA.

Once again, conservative politicians are fanning the flames. After Youngkin’s victory, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced his support for a “Parents Bill of Rights” that opposes the teaching of critical race theory. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, went even further, proposing to ban federal funding for schools that teach critical race theory and have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives.

And the media is playing a similar role to what it did in covering Davis. Before the Virginia election, CBS ran a story on an upcoming documentary about the fight over critical race theory titled “How young is too young to teach kids about race?” The headline generated blowback on Twitter for framing the debate as a concern that is specific to White parents. CBS has since changed its title, but the faux pas reflected the longer history of media coverage legitimizing parental anxieties about White children learning about racism in the classroom.

The role of conservative politicians and the media in fueling this outrage overshadows the reason proponents of diverse curriculum have long advocated for these changes: the persistence of racism in America. In fact, the very parallels to the case of Angela Davis reveal why that teaching is so necessary — without it, the same cycles will repeat in the future. Until Americans learn the full scope of their history, good and bad, they cannot possibly remedy the mistakes of the past and build a more inclusive society.