James Loewen, author of ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’, dies at 79

Updated August 25, 2021 5:52 PM ET

James Loewen, renowned sociologist, public educator and racial justice activist, died Thursday, August 19, 2021 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of several books, including the best-selling Lies my teacher told me. He was 79 years old.

His death was confirmed by Stephen A. Berrey, a friend and professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan. He says Loewen was diagnosed with bladder cancer about two years ago.

Loewen was born on February 6, 1942, in Decatur, Illinois, and based his career on dispelling common myths about racial progress in American history. “Telling the truth about the past helps bring justice to the present,” Loewen often said, according to her son Nicholas. “Getting justice in the present helps us speak the truth about the past.

Loewen told NPR’s Gene Demby in a 2018 interview that he decided to write his first high school text on race and history when he asked a class of students at Tougaloo College, a university historically black near Jackson, Miss., what they knew about reconstruction .

“And what happened to me was an ‘aha’ experience, although you better consider it an ‘oh no’ experience,” Loewen told NPR. “Sixteen of my 17 students said, ‘Well, Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when black people came to power in the southern states, but they had come out of slavery too soon, and so they screwed up and the whites regained control.”

Loewen said there were “at least three direct lies in that sentence”: black Americans in the South had, in fact, tried to run for office and write progressive state constitutions after the Civil War, but they were violently excluded from power by the whites. supremacists in both organized groups like the KKK as well as the Democratic Party.

The book Loewen wrote in response to this experience, 1974 Mississippi: Conflict and Changewon the Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Non-Fiction in 1976 and garnered positive reviews from outlets including the New York Times, Newsweekthe Harvard Education Review, The nation and the newsletter of the American Historical Association. But the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board refused to buy the book, and several school districts threatened to fire the teachers who taught it. Loewen fought and eventually won a lawsuit that forced the state to adopt the book, and since then many of Loewen’s other works have become required reading in high school history classes, including Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Loewen’s most recent work, Sunset Cities, investigated towns in which African Americans and other minorities were previously threatened with lynching if they stayed after dark. He started the book with the goal of documenting about 10 such towns in his home state of Illinois and about 50 across the country, but ended up finding more than 500 in Illinois alone and thousands across the country. His colleagues maintain a database that anyone can use to see if their town has a Sundown past.

But Loewen was also adamant that he would not be the kind of academic who focuses solely on publishing research, so he traveled the country, meeting with residents and leaders of former Sundown towns for the help to reflect their history. Stephen Berrey, a historian at the University of Michigan, made several of these trips with him and continues to maintain the Sundown Towns project.

“For the past, you know, almost 20 years now, it’s been about working with local communities and encouraging them to reflect on their own past,” Berrey said. For places that have had a past as Sundown Town, he says Loewen’s job was to “work with the communities to talk about it, how do you respond to that? What are the next steps? … How are you creating a place that says we are welcoming and inclusive in the present?”

Cities that have worked with Loewen to better represent their Sundown past include Goshen, Ind., La Crosse, Wis., and Glendale, Calif. One of the first Sundown towns Loewen ever investigated, Anna, Ill. investigation and ultimately saw residents participating in the 2020 racial justice protests.

This kind of commitment was typical of Loewen, who did her best to ensure that her academic work had tangible benefits for racial justice movements. He was very encouraged by the 2020 protests, according to Nicholas, who says “if he wasn’t immunocompromised, I’m sure he would have been in downtown DC on the steps of the White House.”

“Jim had a special relationship with everyone he met, including those who met him through the pages of his books,” Berrey wrote in an email to NPR. “He could clearly illustrate an issue of injustice, often historical but tied to the present, and motivate the reader or listener to want to take action to address that issue. He had a knack for inspiring others to work with him to say the truth about the past and to work for social justice in the present.”

Berrey and Nicholas Loewen both say that through his lectures, books, and charisma, Loewen has brought countless people into the work of racial justice. One such person was social justice educator Eddie Moore. He was inspired by Loewen’s work as a young adult and eventually befriended him at the White Privilege Conference, which Moore founded to help organizers and those interested in equity. race to learn from each other. Moore says their friendship grew to the point where he considered Loewen a brother.

“And I will miss my big brother, Jim Loewen. Because he inspired and supported me in a way that continues to help me today,” Moore said. “A spark, part of what inspires me, was partly ignited by Jim Loewen. And it will never go away until the day I die.”

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