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Racist label on panelist disputed; School board member misjudged, friends say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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's 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 pupils 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.

'Just made sense'

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

He said the current emphasis on multiculturalism in education differs from teaching about minorities' contributions in different subject areas, such as English, history and social studies. At a state education conference a few years ago, Mish said, a presentation on "multicultural mathematics" intended to demonstrate that all cultures had contributed to math.

"My question was, if we're talking about minority contribution to math, are we teaching math?" Mish said.

'My faith is very central'

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.

By the time Mish retired from the county school system in 1990, he had become a Republican -- because of dissatisfaction with Democratic presidential candidates -- and had deepened his commitment to his Christianity.

"My faith is very central to my life," said Mish, who currently teaches at a Christian school in Pennsylvania. "I try to read the Bible every day, and I pray every day."

Since his election to the school board in 1991, Mish has been a conservative voice generally in sync with residents in this overwhelmingly Republican county. He's voted against AIDS education videos in schools and led a vote to ban a textbook he believed to be anti-Christian and historically inaccurate.

Yet Mish said he's not bound by a conservative agenda and points out that he's opposed to vouchers for private schools.

'Wants to instruct students'

Although some former colleagues said Mish's comments on the King holiday removal may sound like sound bites from talk radio, they didn't question Mish's motivations.

"As an educator, he wants to instruct students," said Donald Vetter, retired supervisor of social studies for county schools. "Let's face it, if kids aren't in school, there's not going to be too many thinking about Martin Luther King."

Mish said the public outcry over the board's decision brought back memories of his visit 10 years ago to King's gravesite in Atlanta and led him to watch again the civil rights documentary "Montgomery to Memphis."

He said the board should have sought public comment before removing the holiday, but Mish is not convinced that a day off from school is the best way to honor King.

"He stood for a color-blind society, and I believe that's biblical," Mish said. "If you read his speeches, he said that he was incidental to the movement. He didn't want the focus to be on him. He wanted the focus to be on equal rights under the law and the philosophy of nonviolence."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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