Part Two: Opinion. Is DeSantis the new Millie Rutherford?
On October 7, 1919, in Atlanta, Georgia, a committee led by an invited speaker, Miss Mildred “Millie” L. Rutherford, met to discuss how Southern history should be, “correctly taught in our school.”
Born into a wealthy slave-owning family in 1851, a devout Christian and a white supremacist, Millie was a Southern school teacher, who dedicated her life to perpetuating the Lost Cause Mythology. The Lost Cause was a historical revisionist campaign that presented the Civil War from white southern Confederate sympathizers’ point of view. She held strong pro-Confederacy, proslavery views and opposed women’s suffrage.
Rutherford, who became the principal of a female academy in Athens, Georgia led the effort to purge Southern school textbooks of “Yankee” sentiment.
Millie knew if she was going to change people’s perception of the Civil War, Slavery, and the Confederacy, she needed to start with school children and the culture that surrounds them.
Rutherford sent hundreds of women into classrooms and school offices to make sure their truth remained unqualified into the next generation. They came armed with her pamphlet, A Measuring Rod to Test Textbooks. It provided a handy checklist to help them define and defend Confederate orthodoxy. Here is a list of what was and was not acceptable for school children to learn:
Reject a book that calls the Confederate soldier a traitor or rebel, and the war a rebellion.
Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves.
Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves.
Reject a textbook that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis, unless a truthful cause can be found for such glorification and vilification before 1865.
Some book companies issued so-called mint julep editions to satisfy the Southern market, expunging words such as treason and rebellion. But Rutherford and her aides found that many districts continued to use “Yankee” versions, which included the hated language of shared valor and responsibility.
The eventual desegregation of textbooks was led by the civil rights movement and the court-ordered desegregation of Southern schools led to. By the 1980s, black heroes such as Frederick Douglass began to populate Southern textbooks, and Mildred Rutherford’s pro-Confederate doctrine had largely disappeared. But it still seeps in now and again.
Until her death in 1928, Rutherford insisted that Lee was not guilty of treason; the real traitors were the Yankees.
Source: Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which chronicles controversies over school history since the 1890s.