Perspective | Violence over schools is nothing new in America – The Washington Post
A California father who punched an elementary school teacher on the first day of class. Screaming matches at school board meetings about mask mandates and history classes. Explicit threats of violence against school board members and community doctors testifying in front of school boards and vandalism targeting school board members’ homes.
Chaos and violence seem to be the themes of the first month of school. To many observers, these may appear to be exceptional, unprecedented times. But there’s a long history of public schools serving as ideological and physical battlegrounds, particularly when it comes to conflicts over citizenship and civil rights.
The violent response this fall by some Americans to public health measures and teaching our history of racism is an echo of violent responses in the past to efforts to broaden the reach and mission of schools. And this history also shows that how government reacts is not foreordained, and that the choice of responses will play a major role in determining the long-term consequences of this violence.
In the 1830s and 1840s, industrialization in Massachusetts triggered civil disorder, including the Boston riots between Protestants and immigrant Catholics. State Secretary of Education Horace Mann thought he had a solution to this strife, arguing for educating all children together in what he called common schools designed to foster a background that all children would share.
But this concept proved fractious from the start.
No sooner did common schools emerge than violence engulfed them. In 1844, Catholic families in Philadelphia sought representation in the schools. Yet many White Protestants saw Catholic immigrants as a threat to a burgeoning national identity, and nowhere was that assault clearer than in their supposed attempts to take over the public schools. So nativists spread false rumors that Catholic immigrants were pushing local public schools to remove Bibles.
These rumors, fear and anger spread and neighbors took to the streets. Multi-day riots in May and July resulted in the burning of multiple Catholic churches and the deaths of more than two dozen people.
Violence at and around schools became even more widespread after the Civil War. As newly elected Black politicians joined with community members to create a system of public schooling in the South, they fused schooling and citizenship. All the Reconstruction-era state constitutions that Congress approved had education embedded as a right. The appearance of public schools for Black children and the promise of access to all aspects of society enraged some White Southerners who feared the erosion of a social order that gave them privilege and power. Those fears translated to direct attacks.
Because of the central role of public education in the new definition of American citizenship, Southern racists targeted schools as part of an explicit counterrevolution to undermine Reconstruction and civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan regularly attacked schools, and being a teacher in a Black community was one of the most vulnerable occupations throughout the late 19th century.
For a brief period in the early 20th century, school violence dissipated, but for the worst of reasons. Across the South, White elites imposed systems of disfranchisement and segregation; systematically and structurally disadvantaged, Black schools became less of a visible threat to White supremacy and reigning power arrangements.
But schooling became the center of widespread community conflict and violence again in the early 1940s. When two Jehovah’s Witness children, Lillian and William Gobitas, refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in their Minersville, Pa., public school classroom, they were expelled. Their case wound through the federal courts, finally reaching the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the school district.
In the wake of that decision, Jehovah’s Witnesses were assaulted in communities across the country, often with members of the American Legion as leading local vigilantes. Coming to the schools with a mob mentality, Legionnaires and others identified the pledge in public schools as fundamental to American identity and those who refused to say it as national threats. In wartime, the mobs — and many other Americans — viewed dissent as suspicious and unpatriotic.
From Litchfield, Ill., to Kennebunk, Maine, entire towns were wracked by anti-Witness mobs. Children who refused to say the pledge for any number of reasons faced expulsion and threats of incarceration, as did their parents for encouraging juvenile delinquency.
In part shamed by the violence following their earlier decision, the majority of the court reversed itself three years later. As Justice Robert Jackson explained in his majority decision, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Despite this shift and the protection of students’ right to dissent, public schools remained figurative and literal battlegrounds in the fight over American identity and rights.
In the fall of 1957, White mobs in Little Rock, Ark., turned out in protest of the nine Black students desegregating Central High School. As Melba Pattillo Beals described in her memoir, on the first day of school her classmate Elizabeth Eckford was sandwiched between Arkansas National Guard members refusing to let her enter the school and “a huge crowd of white people screeching at her back … [having] closed in like diving vultures … [who] shouted, stomped, and whistled as though her awful predicament were a triumph for them.” The mobs dispersed only after President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to enforce federal court orders to desegregate.
In Nashville the same month, a violent opponent of desegregation bombed Hattie Cotton Elementary School. No one was hurt in the late-night bombing, but as historian Sonya Ramsey explained, the single Black student in the school stopped attending.
In the 1970s, White mobs attacked buses carrying Black students as they arrived at South Boston High School.
Across American history, schools have been vulnerable to periodic violence that surrounds debates about citizenship and equal rights in education, including the role of schools in fostering shared childhood experiences, in building citizenship and equal education regardless of race, and in allowing principled dissent from rituals.
The strife this year fits into that broader pattern. To the parents and politicians angry or confused about critical race theory, like the parents and politicians angry or confused about mask mandates and health policies, the public schools are a key front in a battle for their rights and standing as citizens.
Debate over the role and purposes of public schools is a healthy sign of a functioning democracy. But violence around schooling is fundamentally at odds with the give-and-take of democratic decision-making. And it demands a strong response from authorities.
In 1943, the Supreme Court reversed the decision that had triggered mob violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1957, Eisenhower responded to the resistance to desegregation in Arkansas by dispatching federal troops.
Yet when the government has failed to confront violence, the consequences have been severe. In 1833, abolitionist Prudence Crandall opened her Canterbury, Conn., boarding school to Sarah Harris and other Black girls and women. Public officials responded by making it illegal for her to admit students from out of state without town permission, prosecuted her and stood by while a mob destroyed much of her school in 1834. Crandall moved to Illinois the next year, costing Connecticut a dedicated educational leader and beginning two centuries of a long troubled history of school segregation in New England.
The history of education teaches us that violence surrounding democratic schooling is part of a recurring pattern and that we have a choice to passively accept or assertively confront violent impulses.
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