Rev. Al Sharpton leads Florida protest over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies

Protesters in Tallahassee raised concerns about policies they said hurt Black people, the LGBTQ community and migrants.
The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks to a crowd of hundreds from the steps of the Senate portico during the National Action Network demonstration in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis's rejection of a high school African American history course, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023 in Tallahassee.
The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks to a crowd of hundreds from the steps of the Senate portico during the National Action Network demonstration in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis's rejection of a high school African American history course, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023 in Tallahassee. [ ALICIA DEVINE | AP ]
Published Feb. 15, 2023|Updated Feb. 23, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — In the shadow of the building where Gov. Ron DeSantis built a resume as a national politician, hundreds of mostly Black protesters led by the Rev. Al Sharpton on Wednesday made the case that a litany of the governor’s policies are an affront to the progress they have made over the past five decades.

DeSantis, who is seen as a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2024, was portrayed as a national threat by civil rights leaders and Black Democratic state lawmakers who were at the rally.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that Florida doesn’t set a national standard,” Sharpton said at the end of a three-hour rally that began at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and ended at the Florida Capitol, just feet away from the governor’s office.

The politicians, students and religious leaders who attended the event were drawn to the rally for the same cause, but in many cases, different policy issues. But they were all angered by the same theme: policies that they say hurt Black people, the LGBTQ community and migrants.

Some were angered that DeSantis rejected an Advanced Placement African American studies course for high school students because the state claimed it lacked “educational value.” Others pointed to policies they viewed as an attack on the LGBTQ community.

Related: Black leaders blast College Board’s changes to AP African American Studies course

Sharpton drew attention to the governor’s taxpayer-funded migrant relocation program, which last year led to 49 mostly Venezuelan migrants, including children, to be transported from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, an island in Massachusetts.

A focus and emphasis on Black history

The biggest focus, however, was on Florida policies that have made changes to how schools and employers can teach about racism and other aspects of Black history. Many protesters wielded signs that read, “Black history is American history,” “The new racism is denying that racism exists,” and “You can’t erase what we learn.”

“We are not going to let you determine how our story gets told,” said Bishop Rudolph W. McKissack Jr., senior pastor of the Bethel Church in Jacksonville.

In Florida, African American studies is considered part of the K-12 core curriculum, but only 11 of the state’s 67 county school districts have developed a plan for providing the course, trained teachers and integrated instruction in their required coursework, according to the Education Commissioner’s Task Force on African American Studies.

DeSantis has signed into law restrictions on race-related instruction in K-12 schools, and public universities and colleges. Under the law, instructors could be sanctioned if they make a student feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” when teaching about historical events.

Related: 10 times Ron DeSantis changed public education

And last month, the Florida Department of Education rejected the College Board’s first AP African American studies course because it objected to the works of many Black scholars associated with critical race theory, the Black queer experience, the subject of reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The College Board later accused DeSantis of playing politics and said the state’s attack on Black scholars was “repulsive.” In response, DeSantis floated the idea of potentially reevaluating the state’s relationship with the private company, which administers AP courses and the SAT exam.

Related: DeSantis hints at doing away with Advanced Placement courses in Florida

Sharpton said the policies DeSantis is pushing are “racist” because he is trying to decide how “people’s history should be done.”

“They are saying, ‘No, no, no, we have Black history,’” Sharpton said. “But for them to write Black history and decide Black history is a national standard that we cannot allow to happen. They cannot decide which Black scholars and which Black writers. It is like it is said often, if the lion wrote the book rather than the hunter, the story would have come out differently.”

Sharpton warned DeSantis — whom he nicknamed “baby Trump” — that if he decides to run for president, there will be nationwide resistance to his proposals.

“He will not have the domain he has here in Florida,” Sharpton said. “He will be getting ready for some rough stuff. I just gave him a sparring session today, but we will be giving him a real fight.”

Clergy speak to the crowd

If Wednesday’s rally was any indication of pushback, Sharpton was able to draw a crowd of more than 500 people. Pastors from across the state prayed and preached to the crowd, suggesting that the governor is denying justice and imposing a one-sided view of history that silences the Black experience.

The Rev. Kim Buchanan of the United Church of Tallahassee, who is white, told the crowd, “I am descended from enslavers,” and said “learning that history was hard. But if I had not learned about that history, it might have left me, yes, asleep.”

She urged the crowd to pray for DeSantis, “who bears great responsibility ... to give him wisdom to do what is right for the common good.”

A group of Tallahassee high school students skipped school to attend the rally, too. They said they got permission to skip school to be part of an event that they felt spoke to their main concern: potential changes to AP courses.

Anitra Krishnan, 14, and Izzy Cummings, 14, said that they are taking AP courses at Chiles High School in Leon County. Losing those courses, they said, would “put them at a disadvantage” when applying for college.

The national attention on the AP African American course has also made them want to take the rejected course.

“I would take it,” Cummings said, noting that she would prefer to take that over an AP course on European history, which she equated to more history lessons about “white people.”

A few hours after the rally, Curtis Richardson, a Tallahassee city commissioner, spoke at an event at The Challenger Learning Center about the theme for this year’s Black History Month: resistance.

“Right here in Tallahassee earlier today we started a movement to push back on the culture war,” Richardson said.

Richardson said they would continue to resist efforts to oppress Black voters, to “resegregate”' schools through private voucher programs, and to “wipe out African American history in our schools.”

Bill Gary, the chairperson of the Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, gave a presentation about the history of the Moores and their civil rights advocacy. The Moores died after a bomb was detonated under their house, and no one has ever been arrested for the crimes.

Gary said there’s an argument that learning about certain parts of Black history makes students uncomfortable.

“How uncomfortable do you think it makes me?” he said. “If you feel a little bit uncomfortable, it’s good for your soul.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

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