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Charles Sallis, 89, Dies; Upended the Teaching of Mississippi History

Charles Sallis, a Mississippi historian who collaborated on a high-school textbook that revolutionized the teaching of Mississippi’s troubled history, died on Feb. 5, at his home in Jackson, Miss. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his son Charles Jr.

Until “Mississippi: Conflict & Change,” which Mr. Sallis wrote and edited with the sociologist James W. Loewen, was published in 1974, high school students in the state had been fed a bland pablum that omitted the horrors of slavery, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow and largely skipped over the civil rights movement.

Mr. Sallis, a native of Mississippi, had grown up bathed in his state’s conventional racism. But he had long realized that most of what he had been taught was wrong: Slave owners were not benevolent, Reconstruction was not a tale of Black corruption and white supremacy was not inevitable. He and Mr. Loewen set out to change, forever, the way young people in Mississippi thought about their state.

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

Outside Mississippi — a state the historian James W. Silver had called “The Closed Society” in a landmark book in 1964 — the efforts of Mr. Sallis, Mr. Loewen and the rest of their team were immediately recognized.

“Mississippi: Conflict & Change” was “pointed, lucid and sometimes unnerving,” the child psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote in The Virginia Quarterly Review. The Duke University historian Lawrence Goodwyn called it “an extraordinary achievement” and “the best history of an American state that I have ever seen” in a letter to Mr. Loewen that is quoted in the historian Charles W. Eagles’s 2017 book, “Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook.”

And in 1976, the book won the Southern Regional Council’s Lillian Smith Award for best nonfiction book about the South.

But it would take five years of struggles in court against stubborn state officials, a trial, and an order that Mississippi accept the book by a federal judge, Orma R. Smith, in 1980, for it to make its way into the state’s schools.

Called to explain himself and the book at trial by the state’s lawyer, Mr. Sallis was modest: He said that he and his colleagues had 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 deposition, he had decried “the failure of the nation to live up to its commitment of equality” during Reconstruction.

Mr. Sallis himself focused on that period, his specialty, in the book. Of the Black people 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 white Mississippians. All they asked was equal rights before the law. On the whole, Mississippi was especially fortunate in having capable Black leaders during these years.”

This was a radical departure from the view that students in the state had been fed for years in textbooks like John K. Bettersworth’s “Your Mississippi,” which suggested that Reconstruction had been a period of unmitigated horror visited upon white people. “Reconstruction was a worse battle than the war ever was,” Mr. Bettersworth wrote, inaccurately.

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. White people, he said, had “unleashed a reign of terror” to regain and maintain the control they would hold for the next 90 years.

It was a strong stance for mid-1970s Mississippi, and it also represented the endpoint of a personal metamorphosis for Mr. Sallis, as Mr. Eagles’s book makes clear.

Growing up in Mississippi, Mr. Eagles quotes him as saying, Mr. Sallis had been a “benign bigot. In other words, I honestly believed blacks were inferior.” It was only after serving with Black Army officers at Fort Knox in Kentucky, and reading seminal books like Vernon Lane Wharton’s “The Negro in Mississippi: 1865-90,” that Mr. Sallis began to move out of the conventional Mississippi way of thinking — a change reflected in his dissertation, “The Color Line in Mississippi Politics,” at the University of Kentucky, where he received his Ph.D. in 1967.

By the end of the 1960s, when Mr. Sallis began teaching at Millsaps, he “became active in the small liberal community in Jackson,” Mr. Eagles wrote, urging his downtown church, Galloway United Methodist, to create a child care program. The church rejected Mr. Sallis’s idea. Mr. Eagles noted in his book that many Black people live nearby, in this part of Jackson

William Charles Sallis was born on Aug. 27, 1934, in Tremont, Miss., to William Lazarus Sallis, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Myrtle Cody Sallis. He attended Greenville High School and, after graduating from Mississippi State University with a degree in education in 1956, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. He also received his masters degree 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 now out of print, but it “opened the road for other historians to say, ‘OK, we can address these issues,’” Charles Sallis Jr. said. “The reality of that book inspired later books.”

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