As It Happens

Florida's 'Stop Woke Act' won't stop this prof from teaching about anti-Black racism

Marvin Dunn says a new law won’t stop him from teaching Florida’s youth about Black history — no matter the cost.

Marvin Dunn calls Ron DeSantis' act banning critical race theory an 'intrusion into my classroom'

A man sits at a library table with a wry grin. Stacks of books can be seen behind him.
Marvin Dunn is a professor emeritus at Florida International University and leads the 'Teach the Truth' tours that show students the sites of some of the worst incidents of racist violence in Florida's history. (Submitted by Marvin Dunn)

Marvin Dunn does not intend to change the way he teaches students about Black history in his home state of Florida, despite potential chilling effects from a new bill championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"It will not change one syllable in anything that I teach," the professor emeritus at Florida International University told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"[They] can drag me out of the classroom screaming in handcuffs. I will not change anything that I teach based on DeSantis' intrusion into my classroom."

DeSantis' Republican administration signed the bill, known as the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act, last year. 

Dunn says that, according to the law, he can teach the facts of an historical event but cannot touch upon the important historical contexts behind it, or his personal feelings about it.

A smiling Ron DeSantis holds a document, surrounded by children and adults for a photo.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reacts after publicly signing bill HB 7, 'Individual Freedom,' also dubbed the 'Stop W.O.K.E' act on April 22, 2022. The bill came into effect last July. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/The Associated Press)

"For example, I could tell students that six Black people were lynched in Newberry in 1916 for allegedly stealing hogs. I can't tell them that the people who lynched them are white. I can't tell them that race was a factor in that lynching," he said. "I can't tell them how I feel about looking at a photograph, and we do have a photograph, of six of these victims, laying on the ground at the feet of white men, standing around, smiling."

"How dare him? I was teaching in Florida universities before DeSantis was born, and now he's going to tell me what I can and cannot say to students, in particular that I cannot share my feelings with them, or my personal experiences with them?"

Dunn said university administrators appear to be "caving in" to the administration's stance and the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. He says he expected it, because the education department holds the keys to their budgets. But he added that faculty members across the state "are very upset about this, and understandably so."

Florida rejects proposed course

Earlier this month, Florida's education department rejected a proposed advanced placement African American studies course, developed by the College Board, saying it pushes a political agenda — something three authors cited in the state's criticism accused the governor of doing in return. 

The department says it rejected the course because "we want education, not indoctrination," adding that it lacked "educational value" and contravenes Florida law. The College Board's advanced placement courses can provide high school students with university-level course credit.

Dunn called the decision "injurious to my sense of well-being as a Black person," and "a great encroachment on academic freedom" in the state — and possibly the U.S. as a whole, given DeSantis' popularity among federal Republicans.

"This is what they did — and do — in fascist regimes and autocratic regimes. They go after the press first, which is what has happened in our country, and then go after the kids. Get the kids into a regime of education that supports the state," he said.

"And that is what's happening in Florida. And if DeSantis becomes president of the United States, this will go nationwide."

Florida House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell called the administration's rejection of the course "cowardly" and said it "sends a clear message that Black Americans' history does not count in Florida."

"Imagine how boring and closed-minded we'd all be if we only met ideas that we agreed with," she said Monday. 

The College Board, after a decade of development, is testing the African American Studies course at 60 high schools across the United States. No school or state would be required to offer it after its scheduled rollout.

As It Happens reached out to Florida's education department for a comment, but has not received a response.

Touring lynching sites, memorials

Meanwhile, Dunn has been taking high school students on what he calls "Teach the Truth" tours, showing them sites of some of the worst incidents of racist violence in the state.

Recently, he brought them to Mims, Fla., where civil right activists Harry and Harriette Moore were killed on Christmas Day 1951, when a bomb was placed under the couple's home.

They also visited a site in Newberry, Fla., where six Black people, including one pregnant woman, were lynched in 1916; and then to a cemetery where some of the victims are buried.

The tours are sponsored by the Truth, Education and Reconciliation (TEAR) non-profit based in Miami-Dade county, where Dunn sits as part of its steering committee.

A Black woman wearing a white blazer over a red shirt speaks at a podium.
Florida House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell called the administration's rejection of the College Board's Advanced Placement African American Studies course 'cowardly.' (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Dunn says that some of his students cried after the tour. 

"The students have the kind of reaction that any adult person would have, I think, which is to understand this was wrong and hurtful and that it should be remembered," he said.

He noted, however, that the students shouldn't feel anger, nor should any of his white students feel personal guilt about the events — as some of the DeSantis administration's statements have suggested such teachings may incur.

"I would be very concerned if there was a student, for example, who felt so bad that he or she was crying and relating that, 'this was something that my people did.' I'd have a lot of trouble with that. We've not experienced that," he said.

'Bring it on'

Dunn doesn't expect he'll be arrested or charged for continuing to teach his course the way he sees fit, or continuing the Teach the Truth tours. But even then, he remains steadfast.

"I expect at least the school to be punished. Coming after me individually ... I don't expect that that'll happen," he said.

"But bring it on."

With files from The Associated Press. Interview with Marvin Dunn produced by Morgan Passi.

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