JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn each stood on stage at the Neshoba County Fair last week and pledged to prevent schools from teaching critical race theory, even though there's no evidence of concerted efforts to make that part of the K-12 curriculum.
Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped public policy and institutions such as the legal system, and how those have perpetuated the dominance of white people in society.
Given the amount of attention the topic has received in several Republican-led states the past few months, it was a predicable that at least one Mississippi politician would talk about it during speeches at the Neshoba County Fair, where audiences tend to be mostly white and conservative.
“In what world are we living in where it’s OK to teach children that they’re born racist?” Reeves said. “In what world is it OK to teach children that they’ll be judged by the color of their skin, not by the content of their character?
Reeves continued: “That is not the education that we need for the next generation of America’s leaders. ... They should be learning the truth about the United States — that we are blessed to live in the greatest nation in the history of mankind."
Many critics say Mississippi is already doing too little to teach about the horrors of racism.
The stage at the Neshoba County fair is just a few miles from where Ku Klux Klansmen buried three civil rights workers after kidnapping and killing them in June 1964. FBI agents recovered the remains of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman more than six weeks later, after a massive investigation that drew international attention.
A week after the bodies were found, Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers had a plane fly over Neshoba County and drop leaflets that claimed, “Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were not civil rights workers (but) Communist Revolutionaries, actively working to undermine and destroy Christian Civilization,” according to a 2019 article in The Journal of Mississippi History.
Castigating “outside agitators” is nothing new in Mississippi politics.
Gunn — who's widely seen as a possible challenger to Reeves in the 2023 governor's race — said Thursday that critical race theory is a “socialist agenda item.”
“This an attempt to introduce racism into our schools,” Gunn said.
Reeves attributed critical race theory to “Ivy League people” and said they are “some of the dumbest smart people in the world.”
Corie Jones, marketing director for the Mississippi Department of Education said Friday in response to questions from The Associated Press: “We are not aware of critical race theory being taught in any Mississippi schools, and it is not a part of Mississippi’s college and career ready standards.”
Gunn led the 2020 legislative effort that retired the 126-year-old state flag that featured the Confederate battle emblem — a change that happened amid widespread protests over racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
In denouncing critical race theory Thursday at the fair, Gunn said “every society that has embraced racism has failed.”
“We know the devastating effects that racism can have on a society. We in Mississippi know firsthand how that can be, what the devastating effects will be,” Gunn said. "That’s exactly why we must fight against this attempt to reintroduce racism back into our schools and undo all the progress that we’ve made. ... What we should not allow our education system to do is teach that one race is better than another. Those days in Mississippi are behind us. Such teachings have no place in our school.”
Mississippi Public Broadcasting reported that when Gunn responded to reporters’ questions after his speech, he acknowledged he was unaware of any schools in Mississippi teaching critical race theory.
Mississippi lawmakers had already left the Capitol this spring before efforts to ban teaching of the theory gained momentum in Republican-led statehouses around the United States. Gunn said House members will introduce such legislation once the next session begins in January.