School board member in Carroll mislabeled as racist, colleagues say

Joseph Mish has history of supporting civil rights

February 21, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Nobody on the Carroll County Board of Education -- especially Joseph D. Mish -- escaped criticism over its initial decision to remove the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday from next year's school calendar.

The board, which restored the holiday last week after intense community pressure, was labeled arrogant, naive and insensitive for not recognizing the powerful symbolism of the day in the African-American community.

However, the anger directed at Mish seemed to rise to another level of intensity. He was publicly singled out as an unapologetic racist and an embarrassment to the county. A call for him to resign his seat was met with boisterous applause at a board meeting last week.

In comments relating to the King holiday, Mish predicted it wouldn't be long before the school calendar had a holiday for every ethnic group, and criticized multicultural education.

It's not difficult to understand why Mish's comments provoked such emotional responses. But people who lashed out at him would probably be surprised at his background.

As a social studies teacher in Carroll in the 1970s, Mish created the first black studies unit in the county's curriculum. He is a passionate supporter of civil rights, and the unabashedly conservative Christian used to be an "aggressive" liberal, according to a former colleague.

"I do not believe deep in his heart [he] is a racist," said Peter McDowell, retired director of secondary schools and a former principal who supervised Mish. "I think that the way he communicates is a double-edged sword. You know where you stand, but it has caused him problems because he is open, but in my opinion, credible."

In his roles as educator, political activist and conservative Christian, Mish is accustomed to being a lightning rod for controversy. He is opinionated and straightforward.

But those who have worked closely with Mish say a racist is one thing he is not.

"No, that's not Joe Mish," said state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, who served as Carroll school board president from 1975 to 1977. "He just made some inappropriate comments."

Mish's statements during the uproar have undoubtedly been provocative.

Some samples: "Sooner or later, we're going to have 40 or 50 days on the school calendar to honor whoever comes down the pike." He predicted feminists will support a national holiday for "Eleanor Roosevelt, or maybe as a long shot, Harriet Tubman."

"It is disturbing to see America pulling itself apart into separate ethnic enclaves," Mish said about multiculturalism in education. A 1994 state mandate requires schools to recognize diverse cultures in curriculum, instruction, staff development and instructional materials.

Mish, 58, acknowledges he probably could have done a better job of wording his opinions on the King holiday, but he stands by his position.

"I know some people think I am Carroll County's David Duke," said Mish, referring to the white supremacist from Louisiana. "I am not fighting for white people's civil rights. They already have civil rights."

Like other board members, Mish said his rationale for removing the King holiday was that students would be better served by going to school on that day and learning about King's achievements. The board said it initially removed the Presidents Day holiday -- which was also restored -- for the same reason.

"In order to educate kids, you need them in school," Mish said. "Every extra day they're out, it's a little bit tougher to get them back in the groove.

"I still maintain that Presidents Day was put into our calendar to appease grumbling whites upset about having a holiday for Dr. King," he said.

Mish's former teaching colleagues remember him as a creative, committed educator with liberal leanings and a particularly dry wit.

"Joe was one of the most liberal people, besides myself, at that time in Carroll County," said Richard Oliphant, who taught social studies with Mish at the old Westminster High School. "Particularly on civil rights, anyone's civil rights.

"For Joe, it was like there was no discussion, it just made sense," said Oliphant, now a psychology teacher at Westminster High.

In 1971, he developed a six-week unit called "The Black Drive to Freedom," as part of a new American history curriculum he had written. The unit covered the Reconstruction period to the present day. It examined the lives of influential black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and more contemporary figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael.

"We wanted them [students] to know what these people stood for, so they could make up their own minds using their own values and assessments," Mish said.

During his 24-year teaching career in county public schools, Mish served two terms as president of the Carroll County Education Association, the county teachers' union. He was also active in local Democratic politics and served on the Democratic Central Committee.

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