Opinion: Want to fight Trump's lies? Consider these lessons from Black educators

FILE - Members of the Oath Keepers extremist group stand on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Opening statements are expected to begin Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, in the second seditious conspiracy trial against members of the far-right Oath Keepers charged in the Jan. 6, Capitol attack. The defendants facing jurors in the latest trial are Joseph Hackett, Roberto Minuta, David Moerschel, and Edward Vallejo. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
Members of the Oath Keepers extremist group outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
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Speaking at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month, former President Trump spewed lies reflecting his ongoing efforts to rewrite the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He suggested his supporters were completely unarmed and falsely blamed former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the mob. For their part, Trump supporters have sought to recast jailed insurrectionists as hostages or even political prisoners. Some have suggested Jan. 6 was a “peaceful protest” or ”normal tourist visit.” This revisionism serves many roles, but none more than to legitimize Trump’s attempt to undermine the U.S. Constitution.

Trump’s election denialism has been compared to another piece of mythology in American history, and rightly so. After their insurrection in 1861, residents of Southern states similarly spread falsehoods about the war. Some ex-Confederates claimed that slavery had nothing to do with their attempt to secede, but rather, Northern aggression and federal overreach forced the South’s hand. 

This lie became known as the Lost Cause, and by the 1920s it was widely considered factual. But it drew pushback from a group of Black scholars who started what was then called Negro History Week, which grew into February's Black History Month. Those educators had to combat one of our nation’s first campaigns of disinformation. As the month concludes, can their experience offer any hope for today?

Read more: What you need to know about the origins of Black History Month

Following the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865, in books, movies such as "Gone With the Wind" and lessons in American schools, Confederates became the heroes and their rebellion a noble cause. The narrative required Confederate monuments, flags and stories celebrating the white Americans who tried to secede. It also erased the empowerment and leadership of Black Americans who, after emancipation, shaped public life during the post-Civil War Reconstruction. Black people in this version of history were portrayed as docile or better off on plantations, if they were acknowledged at all.

This period of racism and extreme views fueled a countermovement to set the historical record straight. In 1926, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson chose the second week of February to be Negro History Week because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Negro History Week expanded on work Black teachers were already doing, and it quickly became popular. Through historical performances, lectures, parades and other events centered on Black history, Woodson and Black academics pushed back against Lost Cause myths of that time.

These efforts were certainly not without opposition, nor were they a complete success. No less than Massachusetts-born John F. Kennedy fell for the Lost Cause in the 1950s. Today, the rebel Confederate flag is still displayed on bumper stickers, buildings and schools, and streets bear the names of Confederate leaders, reflecting the valorization of men who tried to tear the country apart. But these false narratives are not nearly as unchallenged as they were when Negro History Week started.

Read more: Granderson: Your U.S. history class needed a film like 'Rustin'

Black leaders adopted a few different strategies to attack the Lost Cause. They focused their lessons first on elementary school children, ensuring that local schools emphasized democratic principles including the peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another. Such examples teach students at a young age how democracy itself has worked and evolved.

These educators also applied their mission to organizing, first among the like-minded and gradually to less immediately receptive groups. Black leaders from that era, including historians and members of the press, aligned with abolitionist or otherwise sympathetic white Americans to teach Black history wherever it could be taught. This phase didn’t focus on winning over those enraptured by Confederate falsehoods, but rather on giving accurate information in safe and educational environments.

That has some resonance today. Arguing on X/Twitter against MAGA zealots stuck in a new Lost Cause narrative can be of little to no use. There may be more value in sharing knowledge of American democratic institutions, including the tradition of peacefully transferred power established by John Adams in 1801, with young students and other open-minded or pro-democracy individuals. The endurance of Black History Month suggests that approach can build a lasting foundation for myth-busting education.

Read more: Opinion: Trump's 'lost cause,' a kind of gangster cult, won't go away

Simply preaching that Jan. 6 was wrong clearly doesn’t convince everyone. In the wake of their own insurrection, Trump and his supporters appear intent on following in the footsteps of the Confederates who lost the Civil War but largely won the battle to falsify history for their purposes.

But the teaching of Black history across decades of strong, at times violent, opposition shows that resistance to the facts doesn’t have to be a death knell to education. Black academics did not merely argue against the Lost Cause; they also sought empowerment through knowledge that kept their teaching traditions alive. Democracy itself is empowering, and organizing to share the basic ideas of democracy must be central to fighting Trump’s Lost Cause.

In 10 years’ time, Trump supporters may well indulge in Jan. 6 reenactments or fly MAGA banners beneath American flags on public buildings. But we do not have to accept historical revisionism from a vocal minority as the winning narrative. It may take a long, grueling and imperfect process, but the facts about democracy can still have their day.

Christopher M. Richardson is an immigration lawyer and co-author of “Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.