Alarmed by DeSantis, Black Leaders Protest and Prepare for 2024

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
Demonstrators protest Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a march in Tallahassee on Feb. 15.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Rev. Lowman Oliver marched for civil rights and racial equity across Florida in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, hoping to build a state he viewed as just and equal for Black Americans.

On Wednesday, long after the 75-year-old considered his marching days over, Oliver was back in front of Florida’s state Capitol with hundreds of Black leaders to deliver a stark warning about the man he believes is setting that progress back.

“I want people to know, be careful, because if he is doing it to us, he is going to do it to all other minorities,” said Oliver, the pastor emeritus at a predominantly Black church in suburban Orlando, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “We are better than what he represents, and I am talking about the American people.”

As DeSantis (R) gears up for a potential presidential run in 2024, Black activists and political strategists around the country are organizing, protesting and preparing to highlight the particular danger they say he and his anti-“woke” movement pose to civil rights and to their push to tackle racism as a systemic issue. Some say they are determined not to repeat what they consider a tepid and belated response to former president Donald Trump’s rise in 2016 and argue that DeSantis’s political strategy is even more rooted in racial division than Trump’s.

These Black leaders view Florida’s recent rejection of an Advanced Placement African American history course as part of a pattern of dismissing their community’s concerns and enacting policy that threatens their rights. State officials denounced some of the AP curriculum on issues such as reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it “woke indoctrination.”

“I think a lot of people are recognizing that Donald Trump, yes, was a danger, but now they recognize that the way Ron DeSantis has been governing, and the way he was able to win two elections in Florida, it’s time to sound the alarm,” said Nina Smith, a Democratic strategist who is Black and was a senior adviser to Stacey Abrams’s unsuccessful campaign for governor in Georgia last year. Smith calls DeSantis “the evolution of Donald Trump,” the focal point of Democrats’ concern and opposition for so many years.

Conservatives say Democrats are overly focused on race, and around the country they have opposed certain diversity programs as discriminatory or sought to curb discussions of racism that they call excessive or bound to one viewpoint. DeSantis allies who are Black defended the governor, suggesting that opponents are misconstruing his policies.

“The issue is not his policy – the issue is how the critics choose to politicize policy decisions,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a rising star in the GOP, who argued that it’s the political left singling people out for their race.

A spokesman for DeSantis’s office, Bryan Griffin, noted that Florida mandates the teaching of African American history and said DeSantis has expanded those requirements. He also said the governor has prioritized funding for Florida’s historically Black colleges and universities and pointed to DeSantis’s objections to the AP history course. “Now who would say that an important part of black history is queer theory?” DeSantis said at a news conference.

In Florida – where Republicans control state government and Democrats’ power is shrinking – DeSantis has faced vocal criticism but little effective opposition to his agenda. GOP lawmakers won supermajorities in the Florida legislature this past fall, further sidelining the Democrats, who account for the vast majority of Black state lawmakers. Judges have temporarily blocked some legislation denounced by civil rights leaders, but DeSantis’s administration has won some cases, and the governor has appointed most of the state Supreme Court.

Black leaders and organizers’ concerns go well beyond DeSantis’s schools agenda, which includes a push to restrict curriculum and worker training on race and halt funding for “diversity, equity and inclusion” training at state colleges.

They criticize his formation of an election police force, which drew national scrutiny after many of those arrested noted that the state had approved their voter registration. Most of the 20 people it arrested last year, in highly publicized cases, were Black. They point to his redistricting plan – so aggressive that Republican legislative leaders resisted it – which eliminated two districts drawn to give Black residents an opportunity to elect a Black representative. That redrawing gave the GOP four additional seats in Congress, helping the party retake the House.

A Southern state with a long history of racial discrimination, Florida is 17 percent Black.

DeSantis “has not done, in my opinion, a great job to restore confidence that he represents all the people in the state of Florida, especially African Americans and people of color,” said Al Lawson, who left Congress after his district was eliminated and was the first Black person since Reconstruction to represent that area.

In Florida and nationally, Black voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

In his first term as governor, DeSantis also championed a law that increased criminal penalties for offenses committed during a “riot,” drawing a lawsuit from groups including the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and a local Black Lives Matter alliance. A Tallahassee judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the law in 2021, saying it was too vague and could punish people engaging in protected First Amendment rights. An appeal is pending.

“And now he’s against the AP African American class,” said Ben Frazier, 72, founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, which has pushed for the removal of Confederate memorials in public spaces. “We see it as an attack on Blacks.”

Frazier’s group offered $50 gas cards to help Duval County residents get to Tallahassee for Wednesday’s rally. He argued that DeSantis “is trying to turn back the hands of time in terms of the achievements of the civil rights movement” – which played out in cities including Tallahassee, where protesters held sit-ins and a bus boycott over racial segregation in the 1950s and ’60s.

DeSantis’s views on race came under scrutiny before he took office. In 2018, DeSantis denounced his gubernatorial opponent, Andrew Gillum, who is Black, saying on TV that “the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda” – a choice of words that drew immediate rebuke. Gillum suggested that it was a dog whistle from “the handbook of Donald Trump”; a spokesman for DeSantis said at the time that he was “obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses.”

The Washington Post also reported at the time that DeSantis had recently addressed a conservative conference where one speaker made crude comments about Rep. Maxine Walters (D) and another mocked the “pocket-size Muslim mayor of Londonistan.” The organizer of the conference once tweeted, “Black Africans enslaved black Africans. America freed them sacrificing 350k mainly white Union lives,” The Post noted. A spokeswoman for DeSantis, then a congressman, said he does not “buy into this ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ notion that he is responsible for the views and speeches of others.”

In office, one of DeSantis’s first acts was posthumously pardoning four Black men wrongfully charged with rape in the Jim Crow era. “I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied,” DeSantis said.

Another early action shrunk the impact of Floridians’ 2018 vote to restore voting rights for many people convicted of felonies who have served their sentences – a disproportionately Black group of more than 1 million. DeSantis in 2019 signed a new law requiring felons to first pay all their fines and fees owed to the court.

The governor showed strength this past fall with Hispanic voters in Florida, which is home to many Cuban Americans and other conservative-leaning Latinos. In 2022, he was the first Republican candidate for governor in 20 years to win Miami-Dade County, where Latinos make up 69 percent of the population.

But Black voters in the midterms backed DeSantis’s Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, 86 percent to 13 percent, according to exit polls. That’s slightly better than Trump performed in 2020, when exit polls showed him winning 10 percent of Black voters in Florida.

Quisha King, a Black member of the activist group Moms for Liberty, said she has Black family members who are Democrats but support the governor because of his efforts to restrict school discussions on LGBTQ issues, which conservatives have advocated as a matter of “parental rights.” One recent Pew Research Center survey of Democratic parents found that Black Americans were the least likely to believe children should learn in schools that someone’s gender identity can differ from their sex assigned at birth.

“I know many Black families in Florida that like what governor DeSantis is doing,” King said.

DeSantis praised King last month during his inauguration speech as someone who “joined moms all across Florida and America to speak out against divisive ideologies” such as critical race theory – a once obscure academic lens for discussing racism that has become a catchall term for GOP concerns about teaching on race.

Florida officials cited critical race theory as one reason they rejected the new AP African American studies course, drawing national attention and backlash. Manny Diaz Jr., the state’s education commissioner, wrote on Twitter that its discussions of “intersectionality” are key to CRT, which Florida has banned in schools. Intersectionality examines how race, gender, class and other identities overlap and affect the discrimination someone may face or the advantages they may hold.

This month, the College Board released a revised version of the course that took out some of the curriculum Florida criticized while making other material the state objected to optional. Accused of caving to pressure, the organization this weekend released a statement saying it regrets “not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander.”

Conservatives say DeSantis has thrilled the GOP base with his willingness to fight the College Board and other institutions over their approach to race, gender and sexual orientation – but the last couple weeks also offer a preview of the passionate opposition he would face on a national stage. Democrats say that DeSantis’s record on race will mobilize their base and could also be a vulnerability with moderate voters down the road.

For now, though, the main obstacle to DeSantis’s 2024 ambitions is Trump, who declared his third White House bid last fall and leads the pack in polling on the potential GOP field. DeSantis has positioned himself to Trump’s right on some social issues and on his response to the coronavirus pandemic, and this legislative session will tackle more issues that the governor views as helpful in a presidential primary, according to a Republican familiar with his political operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions.

In Tallahassee, the Rev. Al Sharpton and dozens of pastors from across Florida mobilized about 1,000 people Wednesday to protest DeSantis’s decision to ban the AP African American studies class in the Sunshine State. Protesters chanted “Ron DeSantis has got to go” as they passed lobbyists and state government workers dining outdoors on white-clothed tables.

When the marchers arrived at the Capitol complex, Sharpton said the demonstration was just the opening salvo in the Black community’s efforts to rally pushback against DeSantis as he considers whether to run for president next year. In a fiery address, he called DeSantis “baby Trump.”

“That is his new name, baby Trump,” Sharpton said. “We got together, Black, Latino, women, LGBTQ, and we beat big Trump. We will beat baby Trump.”

In an interview before the march, the Rev. William J. Barber II, a veteran civil rights leader, said that instead of “meeting DeSantis on his terms,” Barber said he and other advocates want to challenge DeSantis beyond his record on race, by linking the struggles of Black Floridians to those facing a cross-section of Americans.

“He doesn’t want people to focus on the housing crisis in Florida, or the millions and millions of poor people of all races in Florida,” he said.

Leslie Mac, a North Carolina Democratic digital strategist whose clients include the Movement for Black Lives, said she expects that groups will coordinate on a broad message about how DeSantis’s policies affect a variety of historically marginalized groups. Akilah Ensley, a Democratic strategist and fundraiser, said she has detected a noticeable uptick in “chatter” among Black Democratic donors that DeSantis poses a major threat.

“He makes people nervous, because he is not dumb,” Ensley said. “He is strategic, and if he can do this at the state level, what would happen if he gets the Pandora’s box and opens it at the national level?”

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
Demonstrators gather to protest Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tallahassee on Feb. 15.