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Teach No Lies: Historian Marvin Dunn Takes on Ron DeSantis & Florida’s Attack on Black History

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We speak with renowned Florida educator Marvin Dunn about the fight to protect the teaching of Black history in the face of racist curriculum changes in the state that justify slavery and downplay violence against African Americans. Ahead of the first day of school, Dunn helped lead a “Teach No Lies” march to the Miami-Dade County School Board Wednesday to protest the new education standards. “We are now in a confused, demoralized state of education in Florida,” says Dunn, author, professor emeritus at Florida International University and co-founder of the Miami Center for Racial Justice. He has been leading tours of teachers and young people to places like Rosewood, site of a 1923 massacre of Black residents by a white mob.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to Florida, where Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is losing ground as support for his 2024 presidential bid slips to its lowest level this year, before next week’s Republican debate. Students in Miami returned to school Thursday, one day after a “Teach No Lies” march to the office of the Miami-Dade County School Board to protest what many call Florida’s racist new curriculum standards for teaching Black history. The measure is part of a broader push by DeSantis to root out ideas he says are “woke.” The new curriculum teaches that some Black people benefited from being enslaved because they learned useful skills.

Protesters Wednesday were joined by some members of the Teamsters National Black Caucus, who were holding a conference in Miami, and by Tennessee state Representative Justin Pearson, who was recently voted back into office after he was expelled, along with Representative Justin Jones, for protesting Republicans’ failure to pass gun control laws after the Covenant School mass shooting in Nashville. This is Pearson.

REP. JUSTIN PEARSON: But there were no benefits for people who were enslaved. Being raped, having your children stolen from you, being maimed, being denied the right to read, those were not benefits for our ancestors.

AMY GOODMAN: The Florida Education Association, a teachers’ union representing about 150,000 teachers, called the new standards, quote, “a disservice to Florida students and are a big step backward for a state that has required teaching African American history since 1994.”

For more, we’re joined by Marvin Dunn, who helped organize Wednesday’s protest, has been leading “Teach No Lies” tours that take teachers and young people to places like Rosewood, Florida, the site of a 1923 massacre of Black residents at the hands of a white mob that murdered at least six Black residents, forced the rest of the town to flee. Many eyewitnesses said the true death toll was far higher. The violence began when a white woman falsely accused a Black man of assault. By the time the massacre ended, every building in Rosewood except one had burned down. No law enforcement agency investigated the massacre. No one was ever charged with crimes.

Marvin Dunn is a professor emeritus at Florida International University, author of numerous books, including A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes. In the book, he writes, “Almost all of Florida’s painful racial past has been whitewashed, marginalized or buried intentionally. But I was born here. I know Florida’s flowers and her warts,” he writes. Professor Dunn is also co-founder of the Miami Center for Racial Justice.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor. You were one of those who led that march this week, right before kids go back to school. Talk about the new curriculum that Governor DeSantis, presidential candidate DeSantis, is pushing and that the teachers are forced to teach.

MARVIN DUNN: Well, first, thank you very much for having me on.

It is a disaster. It cannot be implemented. The state threw out some standards without connecting them to any courses, so teachers in Florida don’t know how to implement this law. We are now in a confused, demoralized state of education in Florida. This man has, I think, done the most damage to education in the state that I can imagine. We’re trying to figure out what to do next in order to have teachers not arrested for not implementing these standards. We’re trying to get clarification from the Department of Education. They do not respond. So, basically, it’s just a mess in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: You are doing something very unusual. You are taking people to sites of massacres, and you are teaching on the ground. Talk about what you’re teaching and how these stories are changed, for example, with the curriculum saying you have to talk about how slavery actually benefited the enslaved.

MARVIN DUNN: Well, we’re still trying to figure out how slaves had personal benefits, when they were not even considered to be persons. They were property. How could a chair or a cow have personal benefits? This is what has enraged Black America, and a lot of white people, as well, the very idea of trying to suggest or having teachers teach that enslaved people had some benefit from being enslaved. Even if the 1% of enslaved who were freed had some marketable skill, what about the 99% who basically had no skills at all? What about the millions of slaves who died before emancipation? What personal benefit did they receive?

What DeSantis is trying to do with this issue and others is to equivocate evil: Everybody was doing — every country had slavery. Slavery was in Africa. It was in China. It was in Asia. Teachers are required to teach that as a part of the Black history course. Why? Why does he want teachers to teach that there was slavery in these other places? Because the argument is America was just another country that had slavery, no different from anybody else. But America was different. America was the only country that had slavery in which the enslaved were not people, but property. That was a unique American contribution to slavery. So we’re trying to correct these lies. We’re trying to make sure that teachers are not teaching these lies. But it is an uphill struggle here in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dunn, on Sunday, you posted a photo on social media of yourself posing with your fist in the air in front of your Rosewood neighbor’s Confederate flag. You wrote, quote, “In Rosewood today in front of my neighbor’s property. He just got convicted of six counts of hate crimes from when he tried to kill me and a group that was visiting my property. He was mad because we parked on his side of the road. I was standing on 'his side' of the road today,” you wrote. Can you describe this attack, what happened to you, your son and others?

MARVIN DUNN: Certainly. I’m the only person, Black person, who owns land in Rosewood today. All of the Black people left. Rosewood is now a bedroom community, very wealthy people, five-acre estates out there. And I purchased five acres of land, pristine land, not touched since the 1923 event. And with the arrival of the 100th recognition of the event, I went to my property to meet with some white people, some contractors, to talk about clearing the property so that we could have an event on the site. This was in September.

As we were leaving — and I had two white gentlemen that we met with up there to talk about what they would do to help us with this. And as we were leaving, my neighbor across the street — I have owned this property since 2008, never spoke to him, nor him to me. So, he rolls up to me in his truck, big white truck with the big wheels and what have you, lets the window down and asks me, “What’s going on out here?” So, I said, “Well, sir, this is our property. And we’re” — and that’s as far as I got. He said, “Well, if that’s your property, why don’t you park on your side of the road?” I said, “Well, this is a county road. We’ll park wherever we wish.” Threw him into a rage. He guns his vehicle, spins around, almost hits people, and then starts yelling racial epithets. I won’t repeat what he said, but the N-word was used again and again. He says to one of the white men who was with us, “You’re just as bad as the” N-word, plural, and sped off and onto his property. And a few minutes later, he comes out at full speed and almost kills us as we were trying to get out of his way.

So we called the police. The Levy County police came out, and they arrested him a few days later and charged him with using his truck as a weapon. When I got back home to Miami, back home — I don’t live up there, I live in Miami — I called the FBI and reported this as a hate crime. And I must say, even though you hear a lot of attacks on the Department of Justice and what have you, they were on the job. The FBI investigated this case. This man was tried a week or so ago in Gainesville, Florida, by a jury of 11 people, no Blacks, and he was found guilty of six counts of hate crime. And he’s facing 10 years on each count. And then, Wednesday, yesterday, he was tried in Levy County on the state charge. I’m not sure what the result of that was. So, this gentleman is facing a lot of time in prison for what happened that day.

AMY GOODMAN: You want to build a “peace house” in Rosewood, an educational hub for students to learn about Florida’s history of racial violence? Are you still going to do that? And is he out free until he’s sentenced?

MARVIN DUNN: He is free. He is out. We were just up at our property this past weekend with 30 teachers from Dade County. We hired a Florida highway patrolman to sit there for the time that we were there on the property. And I have to do that now to assure that we’re not having a problem with this man.

But we will be using that five-acre site to make a park that commemorates the history of Rosewood. And we’re going to rebuild the old railroad depot and use it as a peace house, where people can come to Rosewood, walk that bloodied ground, experience the sins of ancestors, talk about peace, bring our country together, in this place where a very, very troubled thing happened.

I don’t believe that America is as racially divided as DeSantis and the MAGA Republicans would have us to believe. I don’t think most Americans want the government to be telling teachers what to teach at universities. I don’t think the government — I don’t think most Americans — white, Black, Republican or Democrat — want to see the intrusion of government into private life, personal life and education as we now see it happening. So that’s why we’re going to build that house, that railroad depot, and make it into a place of peace, so that we can really bring our country together, the folks who want to come and sit and talk and work out problems. That’s what we intend to do there.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dunn, Florida Governor DeSantis has conducted a conservative takeover of the progressive New College. Many professors have left. You are going to be teaching a Black history class there this fall. Can you talk about what you will be teaching and how that fits into — or don’t you care — about the Stop WOKE Act?

MARVIN DUNN: We’re going to be teaching institutional racism in Florida. We’re going to be teaching the very Black history that DeSantis does not wish us to teach. We’re going to take New College students on the same tours that I’m taking high school students. We even have plans to bring them to New York. Our nonprofit, called the Miami Center for Racial Justice, is raising money to support New College and to support these tours that we’re doing.

DeSantis says New College is where woke goes to die. Now, mind you, this is a very small college. It’s 700 students. I think many of them have left now. But this is the place that DeSantis chose to fight woke. And what we’re finding is that he’s killing that college. People are leaving. I’ve committed to teach there for free. And I will do so with or without the permission of the president, and I will do it if I have to do it on the parking lots.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened in Ocoee, one of the places that you bring students, teachers, professors to?

MARVIN DUNN: Thank you for asking that question, because Ocoee is one of the two places that these new state standards require teachers to teach what happened there. And they’re requiring teachers to teach a lie. They’re requiring teachers to teach that there was Black violence against whites in Ocoee and in Rosewood.

Let me tell you what happened in Ocoee. 1920, a Black man tried to vote. July Perry was his name. He was turned away from the polls. A mob formed — a couple steps in between that — and they come to his house to confront him. They surround July Perry’s house, and they start shooting into it. And they kill two of their number, two of the mob killed by friendly fire. That’s the official report from the Orange County sheriff. And yet, the historical blame is on July Perry, that he killed these two men, that there was equal violence in Ocoee about whites and Blacks — 300 Black people killed in Ocoee. I took those teachers last Saturday to the spot where they’re buried, this mass grave. And we stood and prayed and sang, and told the truth about what happened in Ocoee. That’s just one of the lies that is being required to be taught in Florida right now.

The other one is about Rosewood, as a matter of fact. In that instance, you had a man in his mom’s house with his family protecting him. The mob comes to the house. His mother goes to the window and tries to convince them to go away. They shoot and kill her dead. His mom falls dead in front of him. And then two men, two white men, come up onto his front porch, and he killed them dead, shot them dead. And that’s Black-on-white racial violence? This is the kind of thing that we’re fighting in Florida, where DeSantis is trying to make it appear that there was evil on both sides — same thing as Charlottesville, evil on both sides. And we’re trying to fight that in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re also one of eight plaintiffs in a lawsuit over DeSantis’s law called the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, which also applies to public university professors? Can you explain that?

MARVIN DUNN: Yes. DeSantis wants to shut down discussion in Florida universities about race. He is saying to us that we cannot use certain terms, like “institutional racism.” Well, I teach a course on Black Florida history and on Black Miami history. Miami and Florida were both bathed in racism as they were born, as they came to be. There was not one single institution in the history of the city of Miami, for example, that was not racist. Business, the police, education, entertainment, the church — everything was based on race.

But we’re not allowed to say that? Much less speak about racial violence? Because some white people think that their kids might feel uncomfortable if we talk about those things? What about Black kids who may feel uncomfortable when we’re talking about things that might offend them? So, what we’re seeing is a very, very confused attack, but the ultimate aim is very clear: suppress education that deals with racial history, suppress discussions particularly of institutional racism, and keep our educational system based upon, basically, essentially, Christian nationalist principles and beliefs.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask — we just have 30 seconds. You’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Teach the truth.” Who ignited that flame that burns in you, Professor Dunn?

MARVIN DUNN: My mom. My mother, long gone now, who taught us, my four brothers and me, that you tell the truth, you teach the truth, you don’t promote lies, you’re an honest person, and we expect you to grow up an honest person. I got that from my mom, and my dad, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Marvin Dunn, we thank you so much for being with us, professor emeritus at Florida International University, author of numerous books, including A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes, co-founder of the Miami Center for Racial Justice, joining us from Palmetto Bay, Miami.

Next up, we look at a shocking new Washington Post exposé revealing the Smithsonian has a “racial brain collection,” gathered in part by a racist anthropologist. Back in 30 seconds.

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