Black Floridians grow increasingly frustrated over DeSantis’ moves as election year looms
Torrey Burden remembers the exact moment when then President-elect Barack Obama stepped onto the confetti-covered stage at Chicago’s Grant Park, smiling confidently with his family and slipping easily into the role of the nation’s first Black commander in chief.
The moment was decades removed from marches of the civil rights movement and the sting of Jim Crow felt by older generations. Instead, watching the cheering crowds in 2008, the 44-year-old Melbourne resident personally felt a growing optimism about the future and a stronger sense of place for Black Americans and other people of color in the national narrative.
“We were so hopeful. Obama was our stallion, our hero; everything about that moment catapulted us as a community and said, ‘We are here,’” Burden recalled.
Now, Burden and many other Black Floridians across the political spectrum say that hope has been replaced by a tired, familiar sense of exhaustion at what seems to be a slide backwards, particularly in Florida where the war on “woke culture,” Black history and diversity programs is hard to escape.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, facing formidable obstacles in his bid for the presidency, has positioned himself as the champion who dismantled “woke” policies as part of his tenure. That has meant ridding public universities of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, while demonizing critical race theory and targeting Black history in a state already saddled with a tangled legacy of enslavement, displacement of Native Americans, lynchings, Black pogroms and desegregation marches.
That’s on top of a failed modern-day attempt to reshape congressional districts to potentially limit Black representation — a move struck down by the courts — and the removal of a duly-elected Black state attorney in Orlando.
There’s a growing presence of white supremacists, some seen over the summer marching with Nazi swastikas and carrying DeSantis and Trump campaign signs near Walt Disney World. There are also increasing reports of antisemitism, the ideological twin to the scourge of racism.
“I was born in Florida 83 years ago and have never seen anything like this,” said Marvin Dunn.
A Miami-based historian, Dunn was born in an orange grove barn in DeLand under the shadow of Jim Crow, when Blacks were relegated to second-class citizenship.
Dunn, who retired as head of the department of psychology at Florida International University in 2006, said he senses that something is different as the state pushes through an agenda that seems to negatively impact Blacks, who make up 15 percent of the state’s 22 million residents.
He is concerned — as the 2024 presidential campaign approaches — that the constant barrage of policy proposals and never-ending civil rights court challenges may increase voter apathy and lower morale among the Black voting bloc.
“My comfort level in our rules and laws is severely shaken. People are scared,” said Dunn.
“I believe in my country but this is not the America we fought for. We feel like we’re under attack. The level of white anger is what scares me. Most of white America is not the MAGA crowd but that’s the group that has the bullhorn right now. And in Florida, you see some of these people are emboldened by DeSantis and his rhetoric.”
The governor’s office did not return several requests for a statement on the growing concerns from some of the state’s Black constituents.
Anguish to activism rising in Florida
For Ricky Scott, a south Melbourne community organizer, the constant onslaught of news about book bans and the removal of Black history elements from some school curriculums became too much.
But rather than protest, Scott felt moved to join a group of retired educators and others to do something different, more proactive. Similar movements have taken place across the state, with community leaders turning church pews and back rooms into classrooms to teach history away from the governor’s reach.
“I wasn’t going to wait for when the governor said you can’t do this or teach that,” said Scott, who started Conscious Reality Teaching classes at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church for students in Melbourne. The goal: to teach Black history — from African kingdom to enslavement in America and the more recent aftermath of the civil rights movement — to students of all backgrounds without the overreaching eyes of the state, Scott said.
Other churches across the state have also taken up teaching history as Florida school systems are pressured to drop books and to adjust to curriculum changes mandated by state officials.
“I wasn’t going to agonize. I was going to organize,” said Scott, who recently took a small group of students to Mims to see the site of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, a public park that pays homage to a time when Blacks were subjugated by a swirl of racial politics and violence.
The Moores were the first martyrs of the modern civil rights movement, killed before the U.S. Supreme Court actively began in the 1950s to remove legal barriers to desegregation while pushing to stop the widespread lynching of Blacks.
The Moores, who ran the NAACP from their Mims home, died as a result of a bomb blast that ripped apart the bedroom of their wood-frame home on Christmas Day 1951. The Brevard couple had been traveling the state’s darkened back roads since the ’30s, registering Black voters and speaking on issues such as pay equality for minority teachers.
Questions, concerns from all sides
Even Black conservatives like Florida U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds — a rising star in the national Republican Party and a strong supporter of former President Trump and his conservative brand of populism — have found themselves rubbed the wrong way by elements of DeSantis’ actions, especially with the controversy over the Florida Department of Education’s handling of how slavery would be discussed in the state’s history guidelines.
“What’s crazy to me is I expressed support for the vast majority of the new African American history standards and happened to oppose one sentence that seemed to dignify the skills gained by slaves as a result of their enslavement,” Donalds said in a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, back in July.
“Anyone who can’t accurately interpret what I said is disingenuous and is desperately attempting to score political points,” said Donalds in response to DeSantis officials slamming his criticisms about the new African-American history standards. The comment drew immediate ire from the DeSantis camp.
LaDonna Corbin, an Indian River County Republican who ran a failed bid for the school board in 2022, says the message of conservatism seems lost in some of the controversy.
“I’m concerned about the way things are going. It’s not about being conservative or Black, it just seems like there are a lot of things going on. But make sure people know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Corbin said, adding that the governor and others should hold more community forums and work to do a better job to explain policies, decisions on Black history or other moves to the public.
Like Donalds, Corbin thinks the issue over how slavery was taught in Florida schools could have been handled better.
“It definitely sent the wrong signal. They should have done more to explain what they were doing and why,” she said.
Corbin also says that many times politicians look at voter apathy in the Black community and make moves to appease their political bases instead.
“I love Gov. DeSantis but I think sometimes he making decisions that are more political-minded rather than rational. It’s more politically driven but not thought out for the long-term impact,” she said.
“We have to stand up and we have to stand up against that kind of thinking. That may be why it appears that Gov. DeSantis doesn’t have any interest in some areas,” she said, pointing to Black turnout in polls.
Florida: Ground Zero for backlash
It was September 2023 and a moment when all eyes fell on Gov. DeSantis.
DeSantis, once a rising star on the presidential campaign trail, was trailing badly in national polls and warding off attacks from political opponents and observers after several public fumbles over LGTBQ+ rights and his efforts to reform Black history for Florida students.
The governor’s rhetoric moved the NAACP in May to issue a formal travel advisory warning that the state had become “openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals,” drawing immediate derision from DeSantis’ administration and other conservatives.
Then on Aug. 28, the 60th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, a man with neo-Nazi beliefs killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in a racially motivated attack in Jacksonville, leaving residents in this north Florida city stunned.
Now, just days past the targeted killing, DeSantis was in attendance at a vigil a block away from the crime scene, ready to speak before a predominantly Black crowd, with a watching national audience.
As DeSantis attempted to pay condolences, a chorus of boos and a smattering of applause arose.
“What he did is totally unacceptable in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said as some in the crowd continued with their heckling.
“We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race.”
DeSantis has faced strong backlash in the wake of the Jacksonville shootings. It has galvanized a host of Black lawmakers and activists like Dunn to point out that the atmosphere continues to grow uncomfortable for Blacks in the state.
State lawmakers like Florida Rep. Angela Dixon of Jacksonville, a Democrat, lambasted DeSantis, citing what she said was his use of racially charged “dog whistles” that really were statements aimed at Blacks.
Kendra Thompson also feels the frustration. Her generation grew up in the shadow of the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford. The 17-year-old Martin’s death spurred on the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements but also fueled a legislative backlash firming up the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws, and in the wake of George Floyd’s death, laws aimed at targeting protesters marching through the streets. During his 2018 run for governor, DeSantis had slammed such groups as “anti-police,” and polarizing.
For a younger generation, Trayvon’s shooting death and the political response served as a wake-up call.
“All of it, it’s exhausting, definitely frustrating,” said Thompson, a business owner in Palm Bay and graduate of Bethune-Cookman University and Full Sail University, both colleges near Sanford where Martin was killed.
“To me, what we’re seeing is part of a bigger picture, white supremacy. With everything happening, I feel like we have to stay in tune, stay vigilant of who’s around us,” the 35-year-old said.
Burden, who works with Thompson, agrees.
“It’s so upsetting,” said Burden, who feels his generation is taking on new, insidious mutations of the unresolved struggles tackled in civil rights protests of the ’60s and ’70s.
The battle fronts now, however, stretch from the classroom — with revised curriculum teaching that some Blacks “benefited” from slavery — to the courtroom, boardroom and the ballot box.
“Our story, our place, is in American history. It’s disturbing to see this happening on so many levels,” Burden said.
As DeSantis and governors in other states continue on the frontline to push aside elements of Black history and diversity, Blacks in Florida point to building frustration and disgust as the nation races into the 2024 presidential election.
In Tallahassee, that has meant protests of several hundred people at the state Capitol in February. In Melbourne, retired teachers came together to teach youth Black history in a church hall. In Vero Beach, members of the local NAACP branch discussed ways to push back against DeSantis’ education reforms involving Black curriculum.
The Rev. L. Ronald Durham, president of the Volusia County Democratic Black Caucus, is troubled by the race-related rhetoric.
“Currently the Republican legislature in Tallahassee appears intent on fighting self-created culture wars that exacerbate racial animus,” said Durham, who’s also a member of the Daytona Beach Black Clergy Alliance.
“Unless the legislature comes to its senses and realizes how much damage is being caused by their openly hostile bills targeting minorities and women, we are heading toward a society that has the potential to implode, causing untold psychological repercussions that will take years to overcome.”
Florida needs elected leaders who worry a lot less about making headlines in daily news cycles, Durham said, and instead focus on addressing the real concerns of their constituents of all races “to reverse the train wreck the current course is heading towards.”
He said Floridians also need to have open and honest conversations about the issue of race focusing on the myriad of things everyone has in common.
“Seeing the value that we all have in shaping a future that lifts all humanity will be the beginnings of what one day may lead to an actual color-blind Florida,” Durham said.
Marcus Smith, a Melbourne resident and community organizer, is a native of Atlanta, a city known as the crown jewel of the civil rights movement because of its progressive policies. In recent months Smith has found himself growing increasingly concerned about efforts to dismantle the teaching of Black contributions in his adopted state.
“It’s horrible,” said Smith, who filed paperwork to run for Melbourne City Council.
“This is a strategy that conservatives are employing. They’ve targeted the LBGTQ community, women, and Disney. You have to ask, why are they bringing this up now? It’s divide and conquer.”
Smith and others like Lizzie Robinson Jenkins, a descendant of Rosewood survivors and a community organizer working to build a living memorial to the site of one of the state’s worst massacres, point out that it seems conservatives across the country appear to see the progress of minorities — Blacks in particular — as a threat.
“Really what it is, is that they fear us, who we are, our story of overcoming,” said Jenkins, who, like Dunn, shares the story of the 1923 attack with students and others.
A quiet optimism
Rosemary McGill, a Cocoa resident who attended the March on Washington 60 years ago and protested with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his 1964 bid to desegregate public spaces in St. Augustine, sees DeSantis’ and others’ efforts to undo the legacy of voting rights and civil rights as one more in a long string of obstacles facing Blacks and other minorities in America.
“I will say this, you have to look at things through spiritual eyes. My generation and the ancestors before me planted trees so this generation could sit in the shade,” McGill said.
The challenges brought by DeSantis and other conservatives represents a renewed call to action that should rattle Blacks, Jews and other marginalized communities from political and social complacency, she said.
“Too many of us marched when we really didn’t want to be out there, sat at lunch counters for hot dogs we didn’t want to eat. What this is is a moment for this generation to rise,” McGill said.
“We got to this spot — and it’s a painful reckoning because too many Blacks were getting too comfortable. We won the battles but couldn’t see that the war is still going on.”
McGill points to the two Black elected Democratic state representatives who were booted from the Tennessee legislature in April after taking on the conservative leadership over gun reform. Instead of backing down, the two, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, rallied supporters, won back their seats and continue to lobby for civil rights and other causes.
Scott agreed. He believes that leadership in Black communities across Florida should channel their frustrations into strategies to raise awareness about what’s happening in the state and to engage residents.
“We need to level up. There needs to be some unity. We need to be on the same page to combat all of this. There needs to be a coming together,” Scott said.
McGill said that DeSantis and others attempting to revise history and marginalize Blacks are echoing the sentiments of the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, who was eventually forced to free the enslaved Hebrews after targeting them with hardships.
“When we marched on Washington, we were locked arm in arm with Jewish rabbis, movie stars, and we knew we were on the right side of history,” she said.
“They can’t face reality. These are pharaohs. But you have to remember that we serve a God who sits on high but looks low.”