Last Week Tonight Host John Oliver Tackles US (Revisionist) History

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver re-opened a scar many Americans are not comfortable by revisiting how history education at the state level continues to become mishandled. Oliver began by opening the segment imploring those at the federal and state level that standards need to remain consistent across the board. To illustrate the point, he aired a clip of The View where co-host Joy Behar had to be corrected about George Washington's posthumous treatment of his slaves. They weren't freed following Washington's death as Behar believed, but in actuality as per his will, become freed upon his widow's passing. Oliver then cut away to a clip of Fox News host Tucker Carlson chastising former President Barack Obama about "politicizing" his eulogy to the late Congressman and civil-rights leader John Lewis at his funeral. Obama's eulogy spoke about abolishing the filibuster and possibly expand voting rights to help preserve Lewis' legacy.

"With so many people misunderstanding our history, either by accident or very much on purpose, we thought tonight it might be a good idea to talk about how the history of race in America is currently taught in schools — what some of the gaps are, why they're there and how we can fill them," Oliver said. The host started with what many may regard as shameful citing a CBS report showing there is no national standards when it comes to teaching slavery. The key disturbing facts include seven U.S. states do not directly mention "slavery" within their curriculum, only two mentions "white supremacy" and 17 attribute "states' rights" rather than "slavery" as the primary reason why the Civil War began.

Last Week Tonight Host John Oliver Tackles Revisionist US History
John Oliver tackles revisionist U.S. History on Last Week Tonight. Image courtesy of WarnerMedia.

How United Daughters of Confederacy Indoctrinated Generations of Southern Youth

The latter detail can be attributed by the practice from the United Daughters' of the Confederacy, which successfully indoctrinated generations of southern youth to ensure it's "just to the South." Not only did they reframe the Civil War, but they also downplayed the inhumane treatment from slavery even to the point where 4th graders were subjected to group activities where the students roleplay as a master and slave. This is also the same UDOC that erected monuments at state capitols going against the wishes of arguably the Confederacy's most revered figure, Gen. Robert E. Lee. He did not want the movement to be memorialized.

Another revelation certain Black young adults are finding out particularly in the South are two of the most racially violent events in US history are seldom addressed or nowhere given the proper context in most textbooks. A black civil rights attorney and Tulsa, Oklahoma-native was shocked to learn of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre where Whites staged a massive race riot destroying all Black-owned businesses. In fact, Tulsa was only trending on social media due to the HBO series Watchmen. The city once known as Black Wall Street was reduced to smoldering ashes without so much a finger lifted from the US government much less law enforcement. Oliver also mentioned the events that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina where Blacks were well-represented within the State legislature until an angry white mob led by the Ku Klux Klan staged the only successful coup on US soil. Both incidents not surprisingly, are buried into obscurity within each state's textbooks if at all.

John Oliver Three Points Americans Need to Realize About Their History

To rectify the problems of how Americans continuously insist on seeing the country through their existing filters, Oliver suggested learning from the three biggest mistakes face while in denial. First, he claims "We don't fully acknowledge white supremacy" from its founding to present day. "For example, the U.S. Constitution should be taught as both "revolutionary and racist," because it includes such provisions as the "three-fifths clause," he said. "Stating that slaves were counted as "three-fifths" of a free person." Second, "We view history's progress as it was constant and inevitable," Oliver said. The example he argues, "History books gloss over the timeline between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Wherein Black men earned the right to vote in the 1860s and '70s and then 100 years later had to fight to get those rights back. Because 'in response to that [earlier] progress, white people pushed back, and they pushed back hard.'"

The third major point Oliver continues is, "We don't connect the dots to the present." For example, the host cited how the teaching of U.S. history often "trails off" after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "When you skip over the past half-century, you don't get to see the process by which white supremacy, instead of disappearing, merely adapted," he said, noting the systemic racism in the U.S. that exists today. Oliver posted audio clips of Republican campaign strategist Lee Atwater specifically breaking down how the verbiage may have changed, but the practices remain the same. Oliver closed the segment with a recording of actor Morgan Freeman reading an op-ed from Lewis published posthumously in The New York Times before saying, "History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world, but history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there is nothing to improve. So we have to teach it well and continue to learn it."

About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangora. As a professional writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.

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