John Oliver spends much of his time on the Last Week Tonight discussing the inequalities currently present in American systems. But on Sunday night — with the country still reeling from the killing of George Floyd — he devoted an entire segment to U.S. history and how whitewashed the teaching of it has remained in most American schools.
Kicking off with a discussion of Juneteenth and the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riots — both of which received renewed attention from white Americans after they were featured in an episode of Watchmen — Oliver highlighted how many non-black Americans still have trouble reckoning with the full scope of the country’s history of slavery and subsequent discrimination of black people. The idea that George Washington freed his slaves, for example, is exaggerated; the founding father specified in his will that his slaves could only be freed after his wife’s death, meaning that, in the end, only one enslaved person was freed from his ownership.
Oliver emphasized that there are no national social studies standards in the U.S. to determine which historical figures or topics are discussed in the classroom, resulting in wildly varying state requirements. According to a CBS report, seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state education standards, while 16 mention “states’ rights” as a cause for the Civil War. Much of that is thanks to organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy, who advocated for states in the South to present the Confederacy as made up of just rebels, rather than slave owners. As a result, the inaccuracies presented in those mid-century textbooks have reverberated for generations of American education.
“Some slaves were good workers and very obedient,” one Alabama textbook reads. “Many took pride in what they did and loved their captains and the plantation…Others were lazy, disobedient and vicious.”
White supremacy has not been fully reckoned with in American history lessons, Oliver said, and that reckoning process will be an uphill battle as long as Fox News anchors and other right-wing pundits spin any discussion of anti-racism into cannon fodder. But slavery is embedded within the foundation of America, right down to the Constitution, with the Three-Fifths Clause and the Fugitive Slave Clause.
“The fact that the Constitution is infused with racism does not mean it’s canceled,” Oliver said. “It’s not a YouTuber which was just now realizing it was wrong to do blackface for 14 years, and it definitely doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t learn about it. But they should be taught to see it as an imperfect document with imperfect authors who both extolled the ideals of freedom for all while at the same time codifying slavery.”
Moreover, Americans cannot keep viewing their history’s progress as constant and inevitable. The century between the end of the Civil War and the start of the Civil Rights movement — often glossed over in U.S. history classes — was marked by a backlash from white Southerners toward successful black progress during Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan was founded during this era, at least 2,000 black people were lynched, and by 1877, Reconstruction was deemed a failure as Southern states took local control of racial divides.
In 1898, the only coup d’état to ever take place on American soil occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina, where a mob of 2,000 armed white men killed over 60 black residents and replaced the city’s multiracial government with white supremacists. “And if this is the first time you’re hearing about the only coup on American soil, you’re not alone,” Oliver said.
The March on Washington, as it is often taught in school, was known fully as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and its economic aims were front and center; it was a fight that Martin Luther King Jr. would become passionate about in the final years of his life. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters,” he would say in a speech from 1968. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. But now, we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical distribution of economic power.”
The truth is, Oliver noted, the Civil Rights Movement was longer, messier, and more complicated than King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “and was thwarted in more of its aims than many of us were taught in school.”
Most egregiously, U.S. history lessons often don’t connect the historical dots to the present day, such as the wage and wealth gaps between white and black Americans, which are larger now than when King advocated for wealth distribution. “If you don’t teach history properly, all you see are those effects, and not the causes,” Oliver said.