Charles Sallis dies, 89 years old; He disrupted the teaching of Mississippi history

Charles Sallis, a Mississippi historian who collaborated on a high school textbook that revolutionized the teaching of Mississippi’s turbulent history, died February 5 at his home in Jackson, Mississippi. He was 89 years old.

His death was confirmed by his son Charles Jr.

Until the 1974 publication of “Mississippi: Conflict & Change,” which Sallis wrote and edited with sociologist James W. Loewen, the state’s high school students had been given a pablum that omitted the horrors of slavery, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow and largely skipped the civil rights movement.

Sallis, originally from Mississippi, had grown up bathed in the conventional racism of his state. But he had long since realized that most of what he had been taught was wrong: slaveholders were not benevolent, Reconstruction was not a story of black corruption, and white supremacy was not inevitable. He and Loewen set out to change the way Mississippi youth thought about the state.

In 1970, as the most active phase of the civil rights revolution neared its end, Sallis, a history professor at the relatively liberal Millsaps College, along with Loewen, then teaching nearby at the historic Black Tougaloo College, sat down to rethink their state’s past, along with a small team of students and teachers from both schools. Over the next four years, the group of nine produced a ninth-grade history textbook so vigorous, frank, and unsparing in its examination of the state’s bleak history that the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board banned its publication. use in schools almost as soon as it appeared.

Outside of Mississippi, a state that historian James W. Silver had called “the closed society” in a 1964 landmark book, the efforts of Sallis, Loewen and their team were immediately recognized.

“Mississippi: Conflict & Change” was “sharp, lucid and at times disconcerting,” child psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote in The Virginia Quarterly Review. Duke University historian Lawrence Goodwyn, in a letter to Mr. Loewen, called it “an extraordinary achievement” and “the best history of an American state that he has ever seen.”

In 1976, the book won the Southern Regional Council’s Lillian Smith Award for best non-fiction book about the South.

But it would take five years of fights in court against stubborn state officials, a trial and a federal judge’s order in 1980 that Mississippi accept the book into the state’s schools.

When called by the state’s attorney to explain himself and the book at trial, Mr. Sallis was modest. He said he and his colleagues simply wanted to prepare a textbook that would be “an antidote or remedy to correct the racial imbalance in traditional Mississippi texts.” In an earlier statement, he decried “the nation’s failure to live up to its commitment to equality” during Reconstruction.

Sallis focused on that period, his specialty, in the book. Of the blacks who briefly came to power after the Civil War, he wrote: “They were reasonable in their use of political power and in their actions toward the whites of Mississippi. The only thing they asked for was equal rights before the law. Overall, Mississippi was especially fortunate to have capable black leaders during these years.”

This was a radical departure from the view that Mississippi students had been fed for years with textbooks like John K. Bettersworth’s “Your Mississippi,” which suggested that Reconstruction had been a period of absolute horror inflicted on whites. . “Reconstruction was a battle worse than the war,” Bettersworth wrote, vaguely.

Mr. Sallis went on to describe, in some detail, the brutal repression of black people that followed Reconstruction and the so-called Mississippi Plan of 1875, which involved the violent suppression of the black vote. The whites, he said, had “unleashed a reign of terror” to regain and maintain the control they would maintain for the next 90 years.

It was a firm stance for mid-1970s Mississippi and represented the end point of a personal metamorphosis for Sallis, as Eagles’ book makes clear.

Growing up in Mississippi, Sallis had been a “benign bigot,” Eagles quotes him as saying.

“In other words, he honestly believed that black people were inferior,” Sallis said.

It was only after serving with Black Army officers at Fort Knox in Kentucky and reading seminal books such as Vernon Lane Wharton’s “The Negro in Mississippi: 1865-90” that Mr. Sallis began to break away from conventional thinking. of Mississippi — a shift reflected in his dissertation, “The Color Line in Mississippi Politics,” which he wrote at the University of Kentucky before receiving his Ph.D. in 1967.

William Charles Sallis was born on August 27, 1934 in Tremont, Mississippi, the son of William Lazarus Sallis, who worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, and Myrtle Cody Sallis. He attended Greenville High School and graduated with a degree in education from Mississippi State University in 1956, after which he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. He received the master’s degree from it in 1956.

He taught history at Millsaps from 1968 to 2000.

In addition to his son Charles Jr., he is survived by his wife, Harrylyn Graves Sallis; another son, David; a daughter, Victoria; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

“Mississippi: Conflict & Change” is no longer in print, but “it paved the way for other historians to say, ‘Okay, we can address these questions,’” ​​said Charles Sallis Jr. “The reality of that book inspired later books.”