In Response to: The Politics of History

Your excellent coverage of the controversy around Dr. Guelzo brought to mind a piece of history I lived through in the 1960s. At the time the Civil Rights Act passed, California was searching for a new textbook for its required eighth grade U.S. history course. My grandfather, John Caughey, a UCLA professor and civil rights activist, and my grandmother, LaRee Caughey, a school social worker, decided to submit a volume worthy of the changing times. They drafted Duke professor John Hope Franklin and my father, Ernest May, who taught at Harvard, as co-authors. Their Land of the Free (1965)  included history our schools had not previously covered: the realities of slavery and Jim Crow, the labor movement, women’s suffrage, internment of Japanese Americans, and McCarthyism (of which my grandfather had been a victim), to name a few.

I was a child at the time but well recall the angry opposition to the idea that California might subject its children to such supposedly anti-American propaganda. The state superintendent of schools initially opposed it because, he said, children should learn American history through “the rosy fog of patriotism.” Dr. Guelzo seems to harbor a similar prejudice when he decries the “relentless negativity of much contemporary scholarship [that] has left students grasping for reasons to honor and protect the extraordinary achievement that the United States represents.”

When California ultimately adopted Land of the Free, the John Birch Society went into full battle mode. There were death threats against my grandparents, and white suburban women organized boycotts of eighth-grade history classes. Happily, time ultimately favors inclusion, not exclusion, of important historical narratives. These days, my grandparents’ once-bold book would probably pass muster even with some of the most conservative school boards in the country.

S. Rachel May ’78
Syracuse, N.Y.