See, a bunch of guys needed something to do in 1865 and 1866, right after the Civil War. It wasn't like they could go back to their plantations; Northerners had seen to that. So these good ole boys amused themselves by dressing up in sheets and riding through the countryside pulling pranks. Just good, clean hijinks, until they discovered their antics terrorized former slaves. Then, things turned naughty and nasty.
But in the beginning, the Klan was just a social club.
How do I know this? I learned it in school.
Tennessee history was a required subject in the '60s, when I was a student. The Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tenn., a small town about 90 miles south of Nashville, my hometown.
Here's what the lessons omitted: The first Grand Wizard of the Klan, Confederate general and native Tennessean Nathan Bedford Forrest, made millions as a slave trader.
I can't remember reading anything about slavery in that class. But I've never forgotten about Forrest, the Klan and Pulaski, Tenn. They popped to mind when I read about the social studies curriculum recently approved by the Texas Board of Education. (The changes approved by the conservative Texas board include minimizing Thomas Jefferson's importance in the founding of this country, vindicating McCarthyism and downplaying the significance for the separation between church and state.)
Texas' social studies changes deserve more than the shrug of a shoulder. The state buys so many textbooks that its standards might seep into classrooms all over the nation.
If so, students will learn much about General Stonewall Jackson, and little about President Barack Obama. They'll be taught that states' rights, not slavery, caused the Civil War, and the civil rights movement had "unintended consequences," like affirmative action.
Ironic, isn't it? The Texas social studies standards could be the best thing that has happened to Black History Month.
The observance has fallen out of favor because some took President Obama's election to mean that America had become a post-racial society. But the election has also inspired a virulent backlash on the right. Case in point: the rhetoric at the Tea Party rallies.
To folks steeped in African-American history, those rallies reinforced a lesson of the past: African-American achievement shatters the myth of white superiority, for both blacks and whites.
But miseducation allows myth to masquerade as truth. That's why Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1928. Black teachers knew African-American history was revolutionary and dangerous; that's why they devotedly observed the week for decades.
During the second week in February, Negro students were exposed to facts that had been suppressed and ignored. Sure, we learned about George Washington Carver and the peanut. But we also learned about his agricultural innovations. After studying Garrett Morgan, we never took a traffic signal for granted.
But we learned more than names and places.
Our school books told us that the slaves were thrilled to be in the fields; our teachers told us Gabriel Prosser planned one of the nation's first slave insurrections, and that Harriet Tubman guided hundreds of slaves to freedom. Our books told us that Pierre L'Enfant planned and designed Washington, D.C. Our teachers told us that Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught mathematician and astronomer, served on the planning commission and helped survey the city. Through it all, our teachers skillfully contested the notion that African Americans were intellectually and socially inferior to whites.
No one exchanges power for parity. If white superiority is threatened, it will be protected by any means necessary. Those means include rewriting textbooks to legitimize a past that was abhorrent. We can fight back, just as our teachers did, but we have an advantage they never imagined.
Before integration, our teachers were limited to reaching Negro students in Negro schools. Now, however, the nation pays attention to African-American history when February comes. Call it an "unintended consequence" of the civil rights movement. The crossover of Black History Month has forged a powerful weapon that must be wielded to ensure students are educated, not miseducated.
I know how pervasive miseducation can be. When I was about 10, my mother told me Japanese-Americans had been interned during WWII.
I told her I didn't believe her—because it wasn't in my schoolbook.
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is a writer in Cleveland.