James Loewen, a renowned sociologist, public educator and racial justice activist, died on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was the author of several books, including the best-seller Lies My Teacher Told Me. He was 79.
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 had been diagnosed with bladder cancer about two years ago.
Loewen was born Feb. 6, 1942, in Decatur, Ill., and based his career on dispelling commonly held myths about racial progress in American history. "Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present," Loewen would often say, according to his son Nicholas. "Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past."
Loewen told NPR's Gene Demby in an interview in 2018 that he decided to write his first high school text about race and history when he asked a class of students at Tougaloo College, a historically Black university near Jackson, Miss., what they knew about Reconstruction.
"And what happened to me was an 'aha' experience, although you might better consider it an 'oh no' experience," Loewen told NPR. "Sixteen out of my 17 students said, 'Well, Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when Blacks took over the government of the Southern states, but they were too soon out of slavery, and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again.' "
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 following the Civil War, but they were violently shut out of power by white supremacists in both organized groups like the KKK as well as the Democratic party.
The book Loewen wrote in response to that experience, 1974's Mississippi: Conflict and Change, won the Lillian Smith Book Award for Best Southern Nonfiction in 1976 and garnered positive reviews from outlets including the New York Times, Newsweek, the Harvard Education Review, The Nation and the American Historical Association's newsletter. But the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board refused to purchase the book and several school districts threatened to fire teachers who taught it. Loewen fought and ultimately won a court case 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 more recent work, Sundown Towns, investigated towns in which African Americans and other minorities previously faced the threat of lynching if they stayed after dark. He started the book aiming to document about 10 such towns in his home state of Illinois and about 50 across the country, but ended up finding over 500 in Illinois alone, and thousands nationwide. 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 wouldn't be the kind of academic that focuses solely on publishing research, so he traveled the country, meeting with residents and leaders in former Sundown towns to help them reckon with their history. Stephen Berrey, a historian at the University of Michigan, went on many of these trips with him and continues to maintain the Sundown Towns project.
"Over the last, you know, close to 20 years now, it's been about working with local communities and encouraging them to look into their own past," Berrey says. For those places that did have a past as a Sundown Town, he says Loewen's work was about "working with communities to talk about, how do you respond to that? What are steps going forward? ... How do you create a place that says we're welcoming and inclusive going into the present?"
Towns 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 that Loewen ever investigated, Anna, Ill., was featured in a ProPublica investigation and eventually saw residents participate in the 2020 racial justice protests.
This type of engagement was typical of Loewen, who did his best to ensure that his academic work had tangible benefits for racial justice movements. He was very heartened by the 2020 protests, according to Nicholas, who says "if he weren't immunocompromised, I'm sure he would've been in downtown D.C. 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 a problem of injustice, often historical but tied to the present, and motivate the reader or listener to want to take action to solve that problem. He had a gift for inspiring others to work with him to tell the truth about the past and to work for social justice in the present."
Berrey and Nicholas Loewen both say that, through his lectures, his books and his charisma, Loewen brought countless people into racial justice work. One such person was social justice educator Eddie Moore. He was inspired by Loewen's work as a young adult and finally befriended him at the White Privilege Conference, which Moore founded to help organizers and those interested in racial equity learn from each other. Moore says that their friendship developed to the point where he considered Loewen a brother.
"And I'm going to miss my big brother, Jim Loewen. Because he inspired and supported me in ways that have continued to help me today," Moore says. "A spark, a part of what inspires me, was partly lit up by Jim Loewen. And it'll never go away until the day I die."