History Thread: Propaganda and Poppycock in “The Land of the Free”

By the mid-1960s, many expected the next Civil Rights battleground to be in education. Martin Luther King lamented that “the history books, which had almost completely ignored the contribution of the Negro in American history, only served to intensify the Negroes’ sense of worthlessness and to augment the anachronistic doctrine of white supremacy.” Adam Clayton Powell expressed the same viewpoint in Congress, demanding that “something should be done about racially distorted and offensive textbooks” that downplayed slavery and racism, if not ignoring African Americans altogether.

It wasn’t coincidental, of course. Institutional racism ensured that any books emphasizing Black accomplishments generated protest. “When a publisher goes before an adoption committee in a southern state,” one executive commented, “the first question he is asked is, ‘Are there any pictures of Negroes in these books of yours?'” But it wasn’t just the South that pushed backwards attitudes of race, particularly slavery and the Civil War. A popular postwar textbook asserts that “Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears…suffered less than any other class in the South from its “peculiar institution.”

As battles over desegregation and expanded Black Studies courses raged, King, Powell, the Congress for Racial Equality and other allies pressured states to develop textbooks that “correctly portray the role and contribution of the American Negro and members of other ethnic groups.” In 1965, the State of California commissioned a new textbook for 8th and 11th Graders seeking to correct these shortcomings. The decision proved the curtain raiser on a particularly heated period in public education.

John Hope Franklin

Battles over public education weren’t new, of course. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 was the most notorious example of a nationwide battle against teaching evolution in school. In 1940, the American Legion rounded on Harold Rugg’s social studies book Man at Work, which they deemed “threats to the American way of life” and burned in bonfires. The ’50s Red Scare, of course, saw widespread attacks on public education, both in banning “subversive” books and firing teachers. More generally, there was ongoing leeriness towards the progressive education pioneered by John Dewey, which stressed curiosity and pluralism over ironclad certainty.

“Parents sincerely believed that if their children had better textbooks and better teachers,” historian John Hope Franklin recalled, “they would grow up to be better, more loyal citizens.” Franklin, a University of Chicago professor well-known for his 1947 book From Slavery to Freedom and his involvement in Brown vs. Board of Education, was approached by educators John Caughey and Ernest May to cowrite a new, more inclusive textbook. The resulting textbook, Land of the Free, was issued in 1966, and almost immediately came under fire.

Franklin and his coauthors’ text was, by modern standards, anodyne. They acknowledge that “American practice has not always measured up to the ideal of government by the people,” and describe the brutality inherent in slavery and the fight to abolish it. Land also discusses Black heroes like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, whom it compares to leaders of the ongoing Civil Rights struggle, along with describing the displacement of Native Americans, disenfranchisement of women and brief discussions of Japanese internment and McCarthyism.

Even so, Land retains a standard “Whig history” view of America: that despite its shortcomings and struggles, America was gradually improving itself in a steady arc of progress. “The price that white America exacted for diversity in their textbooks,” Jonathan Zimmerman comments, “was triumphalism in their tone.” Certainly, the authors’ conclusion that “actual rule by the people has become more and more of a reality” does not suggest a radical reinterpretation of American history.

One wouldn’t know it, however, by sampling the responses Land of the Free inspired. “The book quickly became the target of virtually every right wing group in the state,” Franklin lamented. Perhaps he and others shouldn’t have been surprised: California, particularly the “suburban warriors” of Orange County, had long been a hotbed of right wing agitation – indeed, had already mobilized against sex education several years earlier. The John Birch Society, American Legion and other ultra-patriotic groups attacked anything smacking of “subversion”; and a textbook suggesting that America might have flaws drove them into a frenzy.

A Pasadena-based activist group, The Land of the Free Committee, issued a lengthy broadside attacking the textbook. Land of the Free, they wrote, “destroys pride in America’s past, develops a guilt complex, mocks American justice, indoctrinates towards communism, is hostile to religious concepts, overemphasizes Negro participation in American history…promotes propaganda and poppycock.” To illustrate these claims, they created a filmstrip entitled Education or Indoctrination? which compared passages of the book with the writings of Karl Marx.

Perceptive readers knew enough to mock these criticisms. Did Land, for instance, express sympathy for Communism? The “offending” passage comments that “Communism seemed more idealistic than fascism or Nazism. Its apparent aim was to ensure everyone a fair share…But Communism attached no value to any freedom except freedom from want…Speech and writing were controlled. Critics were jailed or killed…In practice, Communist Russia was as brutal a police state as Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany.” One wonders at the mental gymnastics required to consider this an endorsement of Communism.

Nonetheless, other critics parroted these themes. Orange County activist Rose Martin blasted Land for “project[ing] negative thought models” onto students. “We do not believe that you can improve race relations by continued emphasis on injustices of the past,” another concerned citizen complained. “Neither do we believe that a generation of white slaves should be made to feel guilty.” Another thrusted that school “is no place to debunk our heroes” (one can draw conclusions whose heroes he meant).

Other complainants insisted that the textbook offered “one-sided” views on race relations. Why didn’t Land mention slaves who were content in bondage, or note that desegregation caused a spike in Black-on-Black crime? A reader from Maryland weighed in with a berserk observation about Ralph Bunche, a Black scholar and diplomat who had helped establish the United Nations whom the text briefly highlights. “That man Bunche [is] about 75 percent white and…has never used the Jungle brains of his Negro ancestors.” Even when Black Americans achieved great things, some would deny their Blackness.

Ralph Bunche

Soon, perceptive politicians took notice. State Assemblyman Charles Conrad complained that the book “virtually ignore(s) whole periods of our nations history, apparently because the authors dislike the political philosophy of those times.” For example, in discussing Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge’s presidencies, “school children have the right to know…that during periods of prosperity we should reduce taxes and attempt to pay off the national debt.” He noted darkly that coauthor John Caughey had refused to sign a loyalty oath in the 1950s, which Conrad felt explained the book’s criticism of Joe McCarthy and praise of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Richard Pland of the Sonora County Board of Education agreed. Land, he commented, is “designed to build a segment of the country at the expense of the rest of the country” and “to install a guilt complex.” Sonora, along with 13 other school districts, refused to adopt the textbooks, but their actions were local. More consequential was the opposition of Max Rafferty, the fire-breathing State Superintendent of Instruction, who used the confrontation to bolster his profile.

A native of New Orleans, Rafferty had been attacking “communist infiltration” of public education since his college days at UCLA. He styled himself an expert in education, writing books and giving speeches demanding a more patriotic curriculum. In his most famous diatribe, Rafferty asserted that schools offered “Red psychological warfare” that transformed innocent children into “booted, side-burned, duck-tailed, unwashed, leather-jacketed slobs, whose favorite sport is ravaging little girls and stomping polio victims to death.” This tirade earned him national notoriety and a political career. In 1963, positing that California needs “the 4 R’s – reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and Rafferty,” he won election as Superintendent.

Max Rafferty

It must be said that Rafferty wasn’t just a blowhard, nor was he unsympathetic to the children under his charge. His main objection to public education, he insisted in more lucid moments, was that “there was no such thing as an average child” and that students “should not be squeezed into a tight square” by uniform standards. Rafferty also pushed for bilingual education and Spanish textbooks to help Mexican Americans struggling with Anglocentric educations. “Bilingualism is important for everyone,” Rafferty said, “not only for the Mexican-American student who must learn English along with his Spanish, but also for his Anglo counterpart who should learn Spanish.”

But it wasn’t these high-minded policies which won Rafferty notice. He railed against the Dictionary of American Slang, attacked “cake-eating” teachers, raged against sex education and denounced universities as “a four-year course in sex, drugs and treason.” Although he repudiated extremists like the John Birch Society, like many conservatives of his era he couldn’t afford to alienate them; when Governor Ronald Reagan fired several of his liberal deputy superintendents, Rafferty grew emboldened. And with conservative Californians already attacking Land of the Free, Rafferty spied an opening for demagoguery.

On July 25, 1966 Rafferty presented a 218 page reproduction of angry constituent letters to the board. He followed by presenting a speech, which he attributed to USC Professor Emery Stoops, denouncing Land as “slanted in the direction of civil rights…with high praise for militant groups and condemnation for the great majority.” The book also flirted with “one-world government” in endorsing the United Nations and advocating the “liberal line” that communism wasn’t an existential threat. Faced with such a subversive book, Rafferty threatened to “withhold money for its distribution” unless “a major salvage effort” were made to revise the book.

Over the next several months, Franklin, Caughey and May met with state officials to revise the text. Some objectionable references to communist-associated individuals were removed or toned down; Franklin, however, put his foot down on Rafferty’s demand that he scrub an approving quotation of W.E.B. Du Bois. While Du Bois’s radical sympathies rendered him persona non grata by the time of his death in 1963, Franklin had been Du Bois’s close friend and refused to turn his back on him. Historian David Levering Lewis, one of Franklin’s students at the University of Chicago, lauded “John Hope Franklin’s example of high scholarship, great courage and civic activism” in upholding Du Bois’s legacy.

Finally, in December 1966 a revised version of Land of the Free was presented and approved without further objection. Rafferty boasted that thanks to his effort, “the book now contain[ed] some of the most scathing denunciations of communism…ever seen.” Some rearguard resistance from the John Birch Society and other right wing holdouts lingered, but by 1969 the textbook had been adopted by every school district in California, and much of the country besides.

The Land skirmish led Rafferty to make more waves in educational reform. Proclaiming that “the history of the California Indians, as reflected in the textbooks of our school system, leaves much to be desired,” he tried forging an alliance with Rupert Costo, an activist of the Cauhilla Nation who criticized Land for not sufficiently including indigenous peoples. Their alliance frayed when Rafferty ignored Costo’s criticisms of a board-approved book on Native American history. “This kind of a book…will result in more misconceptions, more prejudice and more conflict between the ethnic groups of this State,” Costo warned.

Rafferty ignored him. As the ’60s wore on he tacked farther right, growing more irate with each passing year. If the mild liberalism expressed by Franklin and Co. irritated him, the radicalism of the Black Power movement, antiwar demonstrators and other activist groups inspired fury. He envisioned “the classroom of the future as across between a Commie cell and a burlesque runway”; turning on bilingual education, once a cherished project, he proclaimed that he “will NOT bring Black or Brown or Yellow Power schools” to California.

Boasting that he had “killed progressive education in California,” Rafferty next aimed for higher office. In 1968 he defeated incumbent Senator Thomas Kuchel in the Republican primary; he received the endorsement of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, both of whom campaigned for Rafferty. In that chaotic year, when appeals to the “silent majority” and their need for “law and order” were a winning formula, Rafferty seemed a safe bet – particularly against antiwar liberal Democrat Alan Cranston.

But Rafferty constantly shot himself in the foot. His McCarthyite bellowing that Cranston’s stance on Vietnam was “perilously close to treason” and calls to massacre rioters alienated far more voters than they won. Then reporters discovered that he’d failed to serve in World War II; Democrats gleefully spread the joke that “Max Rafferty celebrated V-J Day by throwing his cane away,” mocking his patriotic pretensions. Rafferty became a joke, and lost handily on Election Day.

Rafferty retained his fiefdom until 1971, when he lost reelection to African American Wilson Riles. Relocating to Alabama, he fought to demand “equal time” for creationism in that state’s science curriculum, helping initiate the modern “intelligent design” movement. He befriended George Wallace, serving as the Governor’s educational aide and campaigning for him in his 1972 presidential run; he even filled in for Wallace in a TV debate after Wallace was shot. Ronald Reagan offered him a White House staff position; Rafferty preferred to serve as an informal adviser on education instead. He died in 1982, largely forgotten but highly influential.

As for John Hope Franklin and Co., they could take solace that Land of the Free remained in use for over a decade. “I [am] sobered by the thought that through it we reached more readers than through all the rest of our writings,” John Caughey told him. But their victory did not create greater tolerance towards textbooks. Indeed, many of the arguments Franklin faced are still being heard fifty years later.

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon Emma Bianco, “The Orange County Right Wing and the Battle over Progressive Education” (2018; online here); John Hope Franklin, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2006); Zevi Gutfreund, “Standing Up to Sugar Cubes: The Contest over Ethnic Identity in California’s Fourth-Grade Mission Curriculum” (Southern California Quarterly, Summer 2010; online here); Nicholas J. Karolides, Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds (2006); Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “Revisiting the Rightward Turn: Max Rafferty, Education, and Modern American Politics” (The Sixties, May 2014; online here) and Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (2002).