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Tallahassee students say why they'd be part of a lawsuit over an AP African American Studies course

A man stands at a lectern surrounded by people.
Lydell Rawls
WFSU Public Media
Civil-rights attorney Ben Crump (in brown suit) holds hands with (L-R) Victoria McQueen, Juliette Heckman and Elijah Edwards

The controversy over an advanced placement course in African American Studies exploded as the state’s refusal to accept the course as-is encountered resistance. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump is threatening to sue over the rejection as the DeSantis administration doubles down on its defense that the course is quote: “indoctrination, not education.”

“I can’t believe this is 2023 and America is talking about censoring education. This is America, not a communist nation,” said Elijah Edwards, who would be one of three plaintiffs if Crump brings the lawsuit. Here he’s speaking to a crowd of supporters during a recent press conference at the state capitol.

“I thought here in this country, we believe in the free exchange of ideas, not the suppression of it,” Edwards said. “I don’t expect much to change in Mr. DeSantis’s mind, but he has the power to work with the College Board to approve the valuable curriculum that is so desperately needed. I hope he does.”

Edwards is a 10th-grade gifted student in Tallahassee. He also belongs to a mentoring program for minority young men in high school. He and the other two students are up against Governor Ron DeSantis, who was asked about his objections to the AP course at a press event on Monday.

“In the state of Florida, our education standards not only don't prevent, but they require teaching black history--all the important things that's part of our core curriculum,” said DeSantis. “The [AP AAS] course was a separate course on top of that for advanced placement credit. And the issue is we have guidelines and standards in Florida. We want education, not indoctrination.”

Education Commissioner Manny Diaz released an infographic that specifies the state’s concerns: “intersectionality and activism; Black Queer studies; movements for Black lives; Black feminist literary thought; the reparations movement; and a topic called Black study and Black struggle in the 21st century.”

Alex Lanfranconi, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, said in a statement: “The teaching of African American History has been expanded in Florida since Governor Ron DeSantis took office. One example from his first term is HB 1213, passed and signed into law in 2020. This is a bill that requires all Florida students to learn about the Ocoee Massacre.”

DeSantis says much of the AP course content is problematic and shouldn’t be taught to Florida students.

“This is a course on black history—[and] what's one of the lessons about? Queer theory,” the governor said. “Now who would say that an important part of black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids. And so, when you look and see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons --that's a political agenda.”

At least one of the would-be plaintiffs has confidence that students can handle the material.

“Times are changing, education is expanding, and students have higher levels of curiosity than ever before,” said Juliette Heckman, a junior at Leon High School in Tallahassee. She’s already taken four AP courses and wants to take this one.

State Senator Geraldine Thompson of Orlando said at the rally that while a law requiring schools to teach African American history was passed in 1994, it’s not being enforced in most Florida counties.

“Thirty years, and there has been no consequence whatsoever for instructors who are not teaching African American history,” Thompson said. “If we say that the speed limit is 70 (mph) and someone goes 80, the Highway Patrol is there with some consequences. But there have been no consequences for not teaching African American history.”

Thompson says she and Representative Gallop Franklin will file a bill to require every school in Florida -- not just public schools, but religious, charter and voucher schools if they get tax dollars -- to teach African American history.

Victoria McQueen says she’s learned most African American history on her own. She’s a junior at Leon High who has taken six AP courses and is dual-enrolled at Tallahassee Community College. She’s agreed to be one of the plaintiffs in the potential class-action lawsuit.

“Learning about the death of Emmett Till, a young man who was not much younger than I am when he was lynched, is something that every child, at their own discretion, should learn [sounds of approval] because even as it is terrible history, it is the American history of an African American,” McQueen said. “Then there’s the Tulsa Race Massacre, also known as the [shouts of approval]…”

Speaking at the rally, Fed Ingram of the American Federation of Teachers warned that the governor’s position on the AP African American Studies course is part of a pattern of politicizing education and creating an atmosphere where some ideas are valued more than others.

“Let me say to the general public: This is not Step 1 for Mr. DeSantis,” Ingram said. “Mr. DeSantis has banned books in the state of Florida. Mr. DeSantis has said openly and loudly that he is going to take over school boards and politicize them for his own good. Mr. DeSantis is trying to squelch teacher voice. Teachers are in the classroom and afraid to say anything about what happened to their children.”

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.