Saturday, June 15, 2024

Harris delivers fiery speech in Florida after school curriculum on slavery draws outrage

Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a fiery speech in Florida after the state’s education board issued controversial new standards for teaching students about slavery and racism in America.

Harris joined civil rights leaders, educators, community members and elected officials in Jacksonville, Florida, where she forcefully condemned Republican leaders over a statewide African-American history curriculum that would teach middle schoolers that enslaved Black people benefited from slavery because they learned new skills and that Black Americans committed violence during race massacres. 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during the Broadband Event on June 26, 2023, at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“They want to replace history with lies,” decried Harris inside the Ritz Theatre and Museum in the historically Black neighborhood of LaVilla.

“Adults know what slavery really involved,” she added. “It involved rape. It involved torture. It involved taking a baby from their mother … [and] some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world.”

Earlier this week, the Florida State Board of Education issued its new standards in a 216-page document. Its planned curriculum would teach students that enslaved people benefited during their captivity with skills and specialized trades.

Prior to her speech on Friday, Harris reacted in real-time to the Florida education board while delivering remarks at Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.’s national convention on Thursday. 

“They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us,” said Vice President Harris followed by roaring applause. “We will not stand for it,” she continued, “We who share a collective experience in knowing we must honor history and our duty in the context of legacy.”

Harris described the Florida State Board of Education’s latest standards as an effort to “push forward revisionist history.” The vice president called Republican lawmakers across the country “extremists” for also passing laws seeking to ban books about “our true history.”

During her Friday remarks, Vice President Harris decried, “How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities, there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?”

Harris also sought to connect the latest controversy in Florida to several political issues, from voter suppression and anti-LGBTQ+ laws to book bans and abortion restrictions. “A lot of them revert to the same source,” she argued.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, D-Fla., who traveled with Vice President Harris on Air Force Two to Florida for Friday’s event, told theGrio that her speech was “spot on.”

WASHINGTON – MARCH 23: Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, D-Fla., listens during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “The State of American Diplomacy in 2023: Growing Conflicts, Budget Challenges, and Great Power Competition” in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday, March 23, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The freshman congresswoman echoed Harris, calling Republicans “extremists” who are waging a culture war and “pushing an agenda that actually hurts our American culture.” She said teaching young students “falsehoods” and “propaganda” will put them at a great disadvantage on the world stage.

“Our kids are gonna be in this world dealing with international people who know their history better than theirs,” noted Cherfilus-McCormick.

The congresswoman rejected the state education board’s suggestion that enslaved Black people in America benefited from the system of slavery. The enslaved, she said, were Africans “who were actually people living and thriving in their countries and were kidnapped and trafficked to the United States.” She added, “So it wasn’t the U.S. that gave them skills.”

Florida State Sen. Shevrin Jones told theGrio that “it’s disgusting that the [Education] department is doing this.”

Jones said Florida’s broader “anti-woke” agenda led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is based on the “false pretense” that children are being indoctrinated by a progressive, liberal agenda in schools.

“As someone who used to be a teacher for nearly a decade, I can tell you that no teacher is going out of their way to indoctrinate students,” the Florida lawmaker told theGrio. Jones said Republicans are continuing to push their narrative of  “extremism” to “rally up their base.”

Presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd on June 2, 2023, in Gilbert, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Jones said he is happy to see Vice President Harris make such a swift decision to address the concerns about education in Florida, which he noted continues to be in the national spotlight “for all the wrong reasons.”

“The vice president coming shows President Biden and Vice President Harris’ commitment to what the president said that he was going to do when he got elected – and that was to restore the soul of this nation,” said Jones, who is also a national advisory board member for the Biden-Harris 2024 election campaign. 

The state lawmaker said Harris’ trip to Florida does not just show the importance of the recent controversy of the day but also the growing “culture wars” brewing in the state and across the country.

“We are under attack from the Republican political agenda that is looking to not just suppress African-American history, but they’re also trying to railroad against LGBTQ+ people,” said Jones. 

He continued: “They’re continuing their inhumane practices against our immigrant brothers and sisters.” 

Students and others attend a “Walkout 2 Learn” rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21, 2023, in Orlando, Florida. Demonstrations were held in four Florida cities and included classroom walkouts by students as a response to Republican-led legislation that organizers say “censor” education, including instruction regarding gender, sexuality and race. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Jones said Republicans should be more concerned about the “real issues” plaguing Floridians, like the affordable housing crisis.

In what appeared to be an attempt to clean up perceived misconceptions of Florida’s education standards for teaching about slavery and race, two Black members of the state board who established the new rules released a statement.

“Any attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage, and resiliency during a difficult time in American history,” said Dr. William Allen and Dr. Frances Presley Rice in a joint statement.  

The two Republicans added, “Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves in the community of African descendants.”

Sen. Jones dismissed the statement as Allen and Rice trying to explain away their part in perpetuating “anti-Blackness.”

“If you have to explain – you’re wrong,” he declared. “The only way to fight anti-Blackness, racism or anything of that nature, you have to call it out and you have to call it what it is.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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