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In Jacksonville, V.P. Kamala Harris warns of ‘national agenda’ to whitewash Black history

Vice President Kamala Harris carried the culture war over America’s past through downtown Jacksonville Friday, delivering a rebuttal to new state standards for school curriculums she said “replace history with lies.”

“I do believe this is not only about the state of Florida. There is a national agenda afoot,” Harris told an overflow crowd at the history-laden Ritz Theatre and Museum in LaVilla.

The vice president filled the 400-seat venue in the city’s most notable historically Black neighborhood and used the stage to weave together criticisms of measures Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration has pursued to reject what DeSantis terms “woke ideology.” The Democratic vice president argued the Republican governor’s efforts reach dangerously far outside the mainstream.   

Harris’s visit to Jacksonville came in response to the Florida Board of Education’s changes to the state’s African American history courses for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. One change civil rights groups and Harris have opposed included the addition of a benchmark for middle schoolers to understand that “… slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Opponents have called the changes revisionist and ignorant of the oppression of African Americans. The state additionally revoked an Advanced Placement African American studies course in the spring and, despite College Board changes, has not reinstituted it

Harris compared the changes to other recent controversial Florida education laws, saying “a lot of them refer to the same source.” 

“And what is happening here in Florida? Extremist so-called leaders for months have dared to ban books. Book bans in this year of our Lord 2023,” Harris said.

“Extremists here in Florida passed a law, ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ trying to instill fear in our teachers that they should not live their full life and love who they love. And now, on top of all of that, they want to replace history with lies. Middle school students in Florida [are] to be told that enslaved people benefited from slavery.”

With the 2024 presidential contest looming over both sides of the dispute, DeSantis responded combatively to the criticism.

“Democrats like Kamala Harris have to lie about Florida’s educational standards to cover for their agenda of indoctrinating students and pushing sexual topics onto children,” he tweeted. “Florida stands in their way and we will continue to expose their agenda and their lies.”

Florida GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler struck a similar tone, saying by email that Harris “hopped on the first flight down to Florida in order to lecture Floridian parents that their children belong to the government and the government has a right to indoctrinate and sexualize our children.”

“The government overreach on parental rights has already been overwhelmingly rejected in Florida, and we hope the other 49 states will join with us by telling the Biden Administration to go pound sand,” he added.

What did Jacksonville area leaders say about the event?

Upon her arrival at Jacksonville International Airport, Vice President Kamala Harris, right, meets with Jacksonville's newly-elected Mayor Donna Deegan on the Tarmac before Harris's motorcade departs for the Ritz Theatre and Museum.

Newly inaugurated Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan said she was happy Harris came to Jacksonville to “shine a light” on the issue. Deegan greeted Harris as she exited Air Force Two Friday afternoon and spoke to reporters before departing on a previously scheduled flight out of town. 

“If we’re going to have unity, whether it’s in our city, or our state or our nation, it has to start with respecting each other’s humanity,” Deegan said. “That’s the bottom line, and any insinuation that slavery was a benefit to Black people is offensive.”

Once at the theater, a succession of allies joined Harris and argued that history showing the warts and shortcomings of America’s past, including deep-rooted racism, can help the next generation to understand that confronting racial divides has been a core part of the country’s history.

“Black history is American history,” NAACP National President Derrick Johnson said before Harris spoke. “Our history is the history of perfecting democracy.”

Changes in education:Florida board OKs Black history standards, rejects concerns about omitting ‘key’ facts

Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County school board member who DeSantis aimed to replace in the last election, introduced Harris to the stage. As a parent, she said she wanted to make sure her child did not learn “white-washed” history. 

She reflected on her own time on the school board, including when she said protestors threatened her after she supported mask mandates in schools in 2021.

“They may want to rewrite our history,” Jenkins said. “They may want to make us relive the darkest parts of that history. But today, we get to witness history as our vice president gets to school the Florida Department of Education.”

Prior to her prepared remarks at LaVilla's Ritz Theatre and Museum, Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to guests at the theater on Friday, July 21.

Harris tells supporters to stand together

Harris supporters with invitations lined the sun-baked street before the Ritz opened its doors two hours ahead of Harris’s talk, but Tami Gerena wasn’t quite sure how she’d ended up among them.

“It’s a mystery,” said Gerena, who said she received an email from the White House about 11:30 p.m. Thursday despite not considering herself very politically active. Her first thought was that it was a scam, but Gerena said she filled out an online form after talking to her husband and received confirmation and instructions Friday morning. She also got an invitation from the Duval Democrats, but by then she was already on the guest list. 

AP African American Studies:As demand for curriculum surges across US, Florida ban remains

Some people went well out of their way to hear Harris talk. Carlotta Houston-Johnson left a church conference in Orlando when she got her invitation, and said it was a rare chance to hear a leader’s thoughts unfiltered.

Houston-Johnson, a longtime poll worker, said Harris had picked an important topic by talking about history. 

“If you don’t know about the dynamics of the past,” she said, “you can’t understand where we are.”

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks before hundreds of supporters to speak out against the Florida State Board of Education's revised standards for teaching Black history on Friday at the Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville.

Looking forward, Harris said she and President Joe Biden support the people of Florida. In order for the country to progress — instead of rewriting its history — Harris said residents needed to stand together and form a coalition. 

“This is unnecessary to debate whether enslaved people benefited from slavery. Are you kidding me?” Harris said. “Let us not be distracted by what they’re trying to do, which is to create unnecessary debates to divide our country. Let’s not fall in that trap. We will stand united as a country. We know our collective history. It is our shared history. We are all in this together.”

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