SETTING HISTORY STRAIGHT - Three high school students represented by attorney Benjamin Crump are planning to sue Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for rejecting a new high school Advanced Placement African-American studies course, the prominent civil rights lawyer said Wednesday.
As Common Dreams reported last week, DeSantis rejected the pilot course in AP African-American studies being tested by the College Board—the organization behind the SAT exam—as he believes it "lacks educational value" and violates the state's Stop WOKE Act by promoting critical race theory (CRT). There is little to no evidence that CRT—a graduate-level academic discipline examining systemic racism—is being taught in any K-12 school in Florida, or anywhere in the United States.
"Are we really okay with Ron DeSantis deciding what's acceptable for America's students across the country about Black history?"
"We are here to give notice to Gov. DeSantis that if he does not negotiate with the College Board to allow AP African-American studies to be taught in the classrooms across the state of Florida, that these three young people will be the lead plaintiffs in a historic lawsuit," Crump said during a Wednesday press conference at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, referring to students Elijah Edwards, Victoria McQueen, and Juliette Heckman.
Victoria McQueen, a junior at Leon High School in Tallahassee, said that "there are many gaps in American history regarding the African-American population. The implementation of an AP African-American history class will fill in those gaps."
"Stealing the right for students to gather knowledge on a history that many want to know about because it's a political agenda goes to show that some don't want... the horrors this country has done to African-Americans to finally come to light," she added.
In Florida, those "horrors" include the centuries-long experiences of slavery and Jim Crow, including 20th-century atrocities like the Ocoee and Rosewood massacres and lynchings like the Newberry Six —events that shaped the state's modern history.
Another one of the students, high school sophomore Elijah Edwards, said that "Gov. DeSantis decided to deny the potentially life-changing class and effectively censor the freedom of our education and shield us from the truths of our ancestors."
"I thought here in this country, we believe in the free exchange of ideas, not the suppression of it," he added.
Also present at the press conference were Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D-63), Florida Legislative Black Caucus Chairwoman Dianne Hart (D-61), state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-35), American Federation of Teachers secretary-treasurer Fedrick Ingram, and National Black Justice Coalition executive director David Johns.
"By rejecting the African-American history pilot program, Ron DeSantis clearly demonstrated he wants to dictate whose story does and doesn't belong," said Driskell.
He wants to control what our kids can learn based on politics, not on sound policy. He repeatedly attacks the First Amendment rights of Floridians with books being banned from libraries and classrooms and now throwing his weight against this AP African-American history course. He is undermining the rights of parents and students to make the best decisions for themselves. He wants to say that I don't belong. He wants to say you don't belong... But we are here to tell him, we are America. Governor, Black history is American history and you are on the wrong side of history.
Acknowledging that the course "will be altered and resubmitted and most likely they'll be able to make enough changes for the governor to approve it," Driskell asked, "but at what cost? Are we really okay with Ron DeSantis deciding what's acceptable for America's students across the country about Black history?"
"Accurately teaching our history is not political until others make it so," Driskell asserted. "How is political to talk about the struggles we've endured? How is political to talk about and to remember our history?"
"The truth is the truth; you can't change it, it simply is," she added. "But if you try to sugarcoat it, if you refuse to teach it accurately, then the truth can be suppressed, it can be diminished, and if we're not vigilant, it can even be erased."
DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has backed dozens of right-wing school board candidates while purging education officials who promote or enforce Covid-19 mandates. Last year, he outraged LGBTQ+ advocates by signing into law the so-called "Don't Say Gay or Trans" bill, falsely claiming that schools were promoting "pornographic" material while perpetuating homophobic and transphobic tropes.
The governor also signed a law requiring "media experts" to ensure that all books in Florida classrooms are "free of pornography," are "appropriate for the age level and group," and contain no "unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination." Violators face felony charges, leading some teachers to cover or remove books from their classroom libraries for fear of running afoul of the law.
DeSantis stridently touts himself as a champion of "freedom."
"Together we have made Florida the freest state in these United States," he said during his 2022 State of the State address. "While so many around the country have consigned the people's rights to the graveyard, Florida has stood as freedom's vanguard."
(Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this article was first published.)