The gloves came off Thursday morning in front of the state education building in Tallahassee in the ongoing debate about public education in Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“The issue is racism,” said the Rev. R.B. Holmes, leader of the city’s historic Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which is rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Holmes was backed by pastors from four other churches and denounced the new African American history standards approved by the Department of Education. The protests are about instructions that teach enslaved people developed skills which “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Holmes and others – including Tallahassee Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox, Leon County Commissioner Carolyn Cummings, City Commission candidate Dot Inman-Johnson, the local NAACP and the Florida Council of Churches – are also upset that the governor and Education Commissioner Manny Diaz refuse to discuss the issue.
Neither the governor’s or the commissioner’s offices responded to a request for a comment and insight into the controversy.
Diaz reportedly backed out of a Miami Gardens town hall appearance on the topic scheduled for Thursday night. About 1,000 people were scheduled to attend, according to organizers. A letter written by Holmes and the Tallahassee NAACP requesting the governor and commissioner revise the standards has gone unanswered.
“I’ve never seen in my history a governor that is so negative, disrespectful, doesn’t listen to constituents and has a spirit of arrogance,” said Holmes, who did the closing prayer at DeSantis’ first inauguration and has worked on Florida education issues with each governor dating to the Bob Graham administration in the 1980s.
Pastor speaks out on culture of fear
Standing in front of a towering education building known locally as the Razor for the way it seems to slice the Tallahassee skyline, Holmes warned DeSantis one “can’t get to the White House” by doing “dark work.”
Holmes said it is painful to take a stand against the governor of Florida but he had to because it is, he said, his God-given mission to stand up to the “wickedness of wrongness” when others are too frightened to speak.
Educators complain new laws handcuff how they teach and place them in legal jeopardy if a parent complains they have violated laws on the teaching of race, sex and identity.
DeSantis-led reforms have loaded the start of a new school year with controversy not only in the teaching of African-American history.
When school districts canceled Advanced Placement Psychology courses out of fear they might violate a prohibition on the teaching of gender and sexual identity, Diaz stepped in and offered clarification twice. Some districts rescheduled the classes.
As that story unfolded, Holmes and the NAACP wrote to DeSantis and Diaz asking the state to delete references in the new African American history curriculum that teaches the “benefits” of slavery.
A letter, an invitation, and no reply
There’s been no response to their letter.
And when Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones of Miami arranged a town hall featuring Diaz to discuss the issue, Diaz reportedly agreed and then canceled his participation.
“There was nothing sudden about my inability to attend Senator Jones’ town hall,” said Diaz on his X, formerly known as Twitter, account. “As I told the senator last week, I will be visiting schools through the state to welcome back students, parents and teacher for the first day of school.”
The Board of Education later posted photos of him touring an Osceola County school and said he is “excited to see the learning gains and accomplishments from Florida students this academic year.”
Holmes expects it will take time to get DeSantis and Diaz to address the complaints.
“This system has a hard time reversing bad decisions when it comes to people of color,” said Holmes.
Taking on PragerU
To the pastors, those bad decisions include allowing five-minute animated features of historical figures in the classroom.
The cartoons are produced by PragerU, a media company created by conservative talk show radio host provocateur Dennis Prager, and were recently OK’d for use in the classroom.
Prager’s stated goal is “indoctrination.”
One of his cartoons depicts the Founding Fathers as abolitionists.
Another has Christopher Columbus explaining, “Being taken as a slave is better than being killed.”
A third states white people led the effort to abolish slavery.
PragerU CEO Marissa Streit has defended the curriculum, saying, “America’s classrooms have been more focused on producing young activists than actually kids who excel academically or are able to think critically. We’re providing teachers with additional tools so they don’t have to only teach leftism in schools.”
Joseph Parramore of the Florida Council of Churches is a former college administrator from St. Petersburg.
He said the inclusion of a curriculum not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education could affect federal funding of Florida public schools.
“We cannot stand idly by and continue to allow the atrocities of a dictatorial leadership of a scared white nationalist DeSantis to inflict harm on the citizens and students of our state,” said Parramore.
On the presidential campaign trail, though, DeSantis has shown no sign of giving in.
“I’m not budging an inch,” he said in Iowa recently. “We are going to fight back against these people, and we are not letting them take over our schools any longer.”
The group intends to continue the discussion, producing a Tallahassee town hall meeting of educators, administrators and Leon County School Board members to address the new AP African-American history standards at noon Aug. 26 at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church meeting room.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee