TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Rev. Al Sharpton led a march to the Florida Capitol on Wednesday to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rejection of a high school African American history course, accusing the Republican of censoring a fundamental chapter of the nation’s past.
The civil rights leader walked through Tallahassee to the Statehouse with dozens of supporters who criticized the state’s blocking of the Advanced Placement pilot course.
“Our children need to know the whole story. Not to not only know how bad you were, but to know how strong they are,” Sharpton told the crowd, adding, “If you would study history, governor, you would have known to mess with us and education always ends in your defeat.”
Ahead of an expected White House run, DeSantis has continued to focus on eliminating what he calls “woke” ideology in education, seizing on national flashpoints around what children learn about race, gender identity and history.
Sharpton’s appearance in Tallahassee signaled an elevation of the national scrutiny that has followed DeSantis during his time as governor and that has increased as he stakes out his position as a firebrand willing to lean into cultural divides.
The dispute began last month when Florida announced it was rejecting the College Board’s course, saying it violated state law and was historically inaccurate.
The state argued that it promotes the idea that modern American society oppresses Black people, other minorities and women; includes a chapter on Black Queer Studies that the administration finds inappropriate; and uses articles by critics of capitalism.
The College Board released a revised curriculum downplaying some components that had drawn criticism, a move that drew the ire of scholars and advocates on the left. The organization has since maintained that the changes were substantially complete before DeSantis made his objections.
The spat continued when the board issued a set of statements days apart that heavily criticized the DeSantis administration and apologized for not taking a stronger stance. The board has also said it is still awaiting clarification on exactly how the course violates Florida law.
“We deeply regret not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander, magnified by the DeSantis administration’s subsequent comments, that African American Studies ‘lacks educational value.’ Our failure to raise our voice betrayed Black scholars everywhere and those who have long toiled to build this remarkable field,” the board said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education said Wednesday that the College Board had not yet submitted the official course framework for additional review.
DeSantis has begun suggesting this week that the state break away from the College Board and its Advanced Placement courses and instead contract with other educational organizations that maintain programs for high schoolers to gain college credit.
“Florida students are going to have that ability that is not going to be diminished, in fact we’re going to continue to work to expand it,” DeSantis said, “but it’s not clear to me that this particular operator is the one that’s going to need to be used in the future.”
The rejection of the course has drawn national attention and led Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to announce that his state would expand the pilot course from one school to 26.
Like other Republicans and potential presidential candidates, DeSantis has taken an aggressive stance on education policy and moved to increase government control over what is taught in the classroom.
Over the last year, he has signed a law critics call “ Don’t Say Gay,” which bars lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity through the third grade as well as instruction deemed inappropriate, and also has approved what is known as the Stop WOKE Act, to restrict certain race-based conversations and analysis in schools and businesses.
More recently the governor announced plans to block state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory.
He has also moved to reshape the once progressive New College of Florida, appointing six new trustees who are tasked with transforming it into a classical liberal arts school modeled after conservative favorite Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Florida is weeks away from its regular legislative session, in which a Republican supermajority stands ready to deliver on the governor’s conservative agenda. DeSantis is expected to use the session to stack up political victories that will form the platform for his potential 2024 presidential bid.