By Kathleene Quinn
Tougaloo College Communications Specialist / Staff Writer
Sociologist and national bestselling author James W. Loewen passed away at age 79 on Thursday, August 19.
The former Tougaloo College professor made a remarkable impact beyond his research and also through teaching. In a 2018 interview with NPR, Loewen revealed that his first full-time teaching job was at Tougaloo College, where he experienced the conflicting ideas of Black students regarding their perception of The Reconstruction Era. An interesting debate ultimately inspired him to write “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” which won the American Book Award in 1996. He was passionate about dismantling American history’s sensationalized tactics – where often the past is misrepresented and reality is undermined.
In his book, Loewen explained how history textbooks got the story of America wrong. He challenged the notion of oversimplifying the truth instead of acknowledging the dark contrast of the past – or that America has always been great, which is not the case. In the early 1970s, Loewen led his colleagues and students to rewrite a new high school state history textbook titled Mississippi: Conflict and Change. Later on, the Mississippi State Textbook Purchasing Board rejected the textbook because it was racially inflammatory. Loewen and others sued the board and won.
Born in Decatur, Illinois, Loewen served as an associate professor at Tougaloo College between 1968 and 1975. He then became the chair of the sociology department. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he visited different southern colleges but developed a particular attachment to the students at Tougaloo College.
“Dr. Loewen’s untimely death has not been easy for any of us to process. A principled scholar and selfless genius, he dedicated much of his life to making the lives of others better. He cared profoundly and advocated strongly against racial, political, economic, and social injustice that victimized marginalized people,” said Tougaloo President Dr. Carmen J. Walters. “Dr. Loewen led by example and left a legacy of excellence, tolerance, acceptance, and civil discourse that helped change the world. His impact has left an indelible imprint on his colleagues worldwide and the Tougaloo College community, and it will be felt for decades to come. While we mourn the loss of a great humanitarian, we are incredibly grateful for his generosity and steadfast support of Tougaloo College. We will miss his presence and will uphold his legacy through our unwavering commitment to academic excellence and social responsibility.”
“Professor James Loewen was a highly respected scholar who understood how dangerous historical amnesia can be. He pushed the needle during a crucial period to offer a comprehensive and inclusive history of the state,” said Dr. Daphne Chamberlain, Associate Professor of History at Tougaloo College. “He articulated historical narratives in such a way not to indict or convict his audience but to uphold the truth. Professor Loewen never forgot how his time at this institution shaped his social justice work through his scholarship, and we will never forget his steadfast commitment to Tougaloo.”
In the age of alternative facts, Professor Loewen’s work rings true to the current dilemma in American society today. Dr. Stephen Rozman, Professor of Political Science at Tougaloo College, added, “Jim was an innovative thinker and an inspiration to his Sociology and Social Science Division colleagues. His research was directed toward the promotion of racial justice and historical truth, exemplified by the publication of his textbook Mississippi: Conflict and Change, mostly dealing with the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial oppression in this state.”
Professor Loewen is survived by his wife, Susan Robertson Loewen; children, Nicholas Loewen and Lucy Loewen McMurrer; sister, Mary Cavalier; and four grandchildren. He was a Professor Emeritus at The University of Vermont.