Yohuru Williams was in Selma, Ala., with leaders of a voter justice and education organization when he had the idea.
Williams, a history and law professor at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic institution in Minnesota, and the group Common Power were there for the March 7 anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
On that date in 1965, Alabama law enforcement beat and tear-gassed marchers as they were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The event galvanized the African American civil rights movement, and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Williams said it’s part of history “that’s being erased.”
But the epicenter of legislation centering on race and education isn’t in Alabama these days, but in a bordering state, led by a possible presidential contender.
“We should do a teach-in; we should highlight the history that’s being erased,” Williams said he told the Common Power leaders. “But we should also do it in Florida.”
Terry Anne Scott—a former associate professor and history department chair at Maryland’s Hood College who last year founded the Institute for Common Power, Common Power’s educational arm—said she and Williams reached out to scholars and activists they knew around the country.
Scott said the group had to hire off-duty police officers for security after trying to get the word out about the event.
“We received hundreds of negative responses—hundreds,” she said. An anonymous Twitter user tweeted at the organization that it shouldn’t be teaching kids “That CRT racist garbage,” and “you WILL BE dealt WITH!!! Keep fucking AROUND you’re ABOUT to find out.”
“To teach history, we had to have protection,” she said.
Nevertheless, for about 24 hours last week, starting around 6 p.m. Wednesday and going through the night, current and former professors, K-12 teachers, and others lectured online and in person at St. Petersburg’s Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Topics varied from “Voter Disenfranchisement: An American Story” to “Black Studies’ Bold Beginnings: The Decolonization of Knowledge” to even “Teaching Black History in Canada.”
Williams, who also leads St. Thomas’s Racial Justice Initiative, said his work “pivots around historical recovery.” He told Inside Higher Ed that’s the “idea that we consistently find ourselves in these George Floyd moments, these Breonna Taylor moments, these Florida moments” because “we don’t know our history.”
During one of the speeches last week, he mentioned Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, and Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor of Virginia.
“What DeSantis and Youngkin and others have done is alter the way that people are thinking about our reality: that, somehow, diversity, equity and inclusion are a bad thing,” Williams said. “That, somehow, talking about our history undermines the fabric of democracy when, in fact, that’s always what has propelled democracy forward.”
He also quoted former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who said knowledge about how our government works isn’t passed down through “the gene pool.”
“Every generation,” Williams said, “must take on the responsibility of building that muscle by educating its own, and so therefore anyone who seeks to deny them the opportunity to do that is not simply anti-intellectual, they’re undemocratic.”
Youngkin’s and DeSantis’s offices didn’t respond to requests for comment. Republicans who have pushed legislation targeting what’s labeled diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory have repeatedly denied they’re being racist or banning teaching history.
Among the teach-in’s speakers was Samuel Joeckel, who says Palm Beach Atlantic University terminated his contract as an English professor in March, over a year early, due to his teaching of racial justice. He had taught there for over 20 years.
“Do you have any idea what the job market is like for English professors?” Joeckel said. “Chances are I will never be a full-time English professor again—that’s it for me.”
Before his termination, he said, his dean informed him his contract renewal was being put on hold.
“When the dean notifies me and then tells me, ‘Well, look, I’ve got to go prepare for Governor DeSantis’s arrival on campus,’ I’m like—I mean, I even asked him right then, ‘Don’t you see a connection here? Do you see what’s happening, that it’s not a coincidence that you’re going right now to prepare for Governor DeSantis’s arrival and as you’re telling me that, there is a problem with my racial justice unit?’”
The private Christian university didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday.
“I am just utterly disheartened by what atrocities the university is committing in the name of Christianity,” Joeckel said. “I think it is just horrific that white Christianity has joined forces with these conservative politicians who are doing everything they can to shut down these difficult but important, truthful conversations that we need to have. But it’s not that new now, is it?”
Scott said donors to Common Power, the parent group of her organization, purchased the two buildings closest to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to convert them to community spaces. And she said her arm of the organization is having Joeckel next month teach the same unit he was fired for.
“This is the beginning for our engagement in stopping this assault on truth in this country, not the end,” Scott said. “There will be much more to come.”