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This Teach-In Is Taking the Fight for Democracy to DeSantis

The goal of the event is to confront the political assault on Florida’s educational system by teaching truthful history and providing education on voter suppression and voter empowerment.

Ron Desantis - Caricature (49815078892), by DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0)

This week I’m traveling to St. Petersburg, Florida, to participate in a 24-hour teach-in for American democracy created by Common Power, an institute committed to fostering, sustaining and expanding voting and education.

The goal of the event is to confront the political assault on Florida’s educational system by teaching truthful history and providing education on voter suppression and voter empowerment.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken the lead on demolishing what he deems as “woke” culture propaganda. He and Florida lawmakers are threatening tenure in higher education, seeking to ban women and gender studies and other LGBTQ programs.

Scholars and educators are terrified that the GOP will severely undermine the academic freedom to write, speak and research without the risk of losing one’s livelihood. Other states are following Florida in a terrifying game of “Simon Says” that reflects a desire to roll back or restrict civil liberties.

For 24 hours scholars, educators, activists and community leaders will teach on the importance of education that refuses to marginalize and erase the triumphs and challenges of African Americans, women and LGBTQ communities who have been vital in the struggle for civil rights and voting rights. The teach-in is intentionally set for May 17, the 69th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Often such milestones remind me how far Americans have yet to go in combating White supremacy. As a history professor, I am constantly reminded that the public cannot depend upon Black History Month, Juneteenth, T-shirts, tweets and a few key speeches to do the arduous work of teaching US history.

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In my own classroom, I am perpetually battling gaps in my students’ education or misinformation. I often a recall a student who asked me, “Who is Harriet Tubman again?” He then answered his own question with his own aha! moment by saying, “Oh I remember, she is the woman who wouldn’t get off the bus!”

Knowing the difference between Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks is not just about being able to spout off trivia, but about understanding that the progress Americans live in was created by those who struggled, sacrificed and in many cases risked their lives to make America a free and equitable society.

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Such progress is not judged by the passing of time. Among the newest of the many crises that America’s educational system faces is a struggle over the control of the history, curriculum, textbooks and college majors that define the learning goals of our education system.

Recently, Slate’s popular podcast, “What Next,” interviewed a teacher in Iowa who said he quit his job as a middle school social studies teacher after the school superintendent pushed back on him teaching the idea that slavery was wrong. According to The Washington Post, when contacted for further comment, the superintendent wrote in a statement that “the district provided support” to the teacher “with content through a neighboring school district social studies department head,” but did not answer the question whether she thinks teachers should be able to teach children that slavery was wrong.

I was incredulous, mainly because I write about the abolitionist movement and Black abolitionists in particular. One of the major hurdles abolitionists faced was educating the public on the wrongness of slavery.

In 1834, the American Anti-Slavery Society believed its most powerful weapon was not the sword, but the pen. Abolitionists began a petition drive that condemned slavery wholesale. A number of petitions were sent to Congress.

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At first, antislavery petitions trickled in to gain political and public attention. By 1838, abolitionists sent more than 130,000 petitions to Congress demanding the end of slavery in the US capital and essentially in the nation. To combat antislavery tactics, Southern members of Congress worked to silence any debate.

The retrenchment that teachers are facing over the teaching of our shared history is nearly identical to a proslavery rationale in that both stymie open discussion of slavery and its impact on society. It is galling that, according to a video of the meeting obtained by the Post, the superintendent in Iowa said to the teacher, “We’re not supposed to say to (students), ‘How does that make you feel?’ We can’t — or, ‘Does that make you feel bad?’ We’re not to do that part of it.”

If that sounds absurd and even harmful, it’s because it is. Not being able to discuss topics fully and accurately such as slavery, segregation, genocide or the Holocaust in the classroom is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. Such a stance promotes an erasure of the most grievous moments in history, moments that hold painful and invaluable lessons. Lessons no one should want to repeat.

The evolution from slavery to abolition, to equality in the United States is a story replete with these same setbacks. In the sweltering summer of 1835, 3,000 people gathered in Post Office Square in Charleston, South Carolina, to destroy any antislavery literature. During the bonfire, they also burned three abolitionists in effigy.

In 1836, the House of Representatives passed a resolution known as the “Gag Rule,” preventing any action or petition related to slavery or abolitionism. Abolitionists might have had the pen, but slaveholders had policy. Safely sitting under seniority rules, they wielded White supremacist policy for the next 100 years — despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees citizens the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

During the antebellum period, it was not long before words and rhetoric escalated to violence. Many might be familiar with the death of abolitionist, printer and minister Elijah Lovejoy of Alton, Illinois. In 1837, after his printing press had been destroyed three times before by anti-abolitionist mobs, Lovejoy decided to arm himself for protection. Once again, a mob attacked Lovejoy’s fourth printing press, which was hidden in a warehouse. As bullets were fired into the building, Lovejoy was hit and killed.

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Just days before he had declared, “As long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, and to publish whatever I please, being amenable to the laws of my country for the same.” But even in death, Lovejoy was vulnerable to violence. His grave in Alton was intentionally left unmarked to prevent vandalism.

I am not sure what is more disturbing, the fact that Lovejoy was willing to face a mob to protect his ability to print and publish abolitionist material or the fact that pro-slavery vigilantes were willing to use violence and commit murder to maintain their power in a non-slaveholding state. And just like Lovejoy, the memory and legacy of people of color, women and LGBTQ are subject to the same vandalism and erasure. Educators cannot teach history like it is an unmarked grave.

As someone dedicated to engaging our history to help create a better future, I share a pointed concern that we are entering a new era attempting to accomplish the same ends. The political and social stakes are high. Book banning and censorship in educating our students in history is no trivial matter.

DeSantis and other governors in Texas and Alabama curating a more politically palatable history for their own political gain is a dangerous game. All Americans ought to be unnerved by anything that tries to stop the flow of learning, knowledge and truth. African American history is not propaganda. The study of women and gender is not superfluous. And love toward any person is not dangerous.

In December 1847, former slave, abolitionist and prolific orator Frederick Douglass created his own newspaper, The North Star. Its motto was “Right is of no sex — truth is of no color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”

    Douglass explained that such a publication was necessary to demand the country address the grievances caused by slavery. He argued “that the man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress, — that the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT — and that he who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate Liberty.”

    The disciplines of African American studies, women and gender studies and ethnic studies are about giving voice, volume and value to the countless ways marginalized people have contributed to American success, identity and culture. Accordingly, it is only fitting that scholars, educators, teachers and those in solidarity use their voices to speak out to keep these histories alive and present in Americans minds. Anything short is dishonest at best and deadly at the extreme.

    There is never a need to fear the truth. I am excited to lend my voice to this teach-in and so many other efforts that are doing the hard and precarious work of preserving American history. For 24 continuous hours, scholars and educators will remind the public of the relentless work and contributions of American patriots, people who called on America to be its best self.

     Kellie Carter Jackson is the Michael and Denise Kellen 68’ associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of “Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence” and co-host of the podcasts “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and “You Get a Podcast!” The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

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