In Jacksonville, Kamala Harris decries Florida's education standards as 'propaganda'
The vice president's last-minute visit Friday came in response to Florida's controversial new rules on the teaching of Black history.
Vice President Kamala Harris traveled Friday to Jacksonville, where she castigated new education rules that she said misrepresent the horrors of slavery.
Harris took issue with new standards enacted by the Florida Board of Education under Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate who has campaigned heavily on culture war issues like education, race and diversity.
The Florida Board of Education approved guidelines Wednesday requiring elementary schools to teach that enslaved people "developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."
In high school, one lesson instructs teachers to discuss anti-Black massacres as "acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans."
Critics like Harris say the rules blame victims for events such as Florida's 1923 Rosewood massacre and the 1920 Ocoee massacre, in which white mobs attacked and killed Black residents after they tried to vote.
At a packed theater in Jacksonville’s historically Black LaVilla neighborhood, Harris said these are not debatable aspects of history.
"How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities, that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?" Harris said. "It is not only misleading; it is false and it is propaganda."
The Florida Department of Education and DeSantis defended the standards as part of a larger curriculum intended to expose students to diverse points of view.
DeSantis blasted Harris on Twitter ahead of her visit Friday.
"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," the governor wrote.
Jacksonville has become a battleground for DeSantis’ culture wars, and he and President Joe Biden have frequently been at odds.
As a presidential candidate, DeSantis has repeatedly criticized Biden's immigration policies while waging a battle against "woke" policies in the government and military. Biden had admonished DeSantis for fueling discord and trampling Floridians' rights on voting, abortion, education and other issues.
DeSantis persuaded the state Legislature to outlaw school instruction about gender identity, sexual orientation and systemic racism, and the Duval County school district received national backlash for its continued review and removal of schoolbooks to comply with the new Florida laws.
Still, Jacksonville garnered national attention after electing its first female mayor in May. The city voted for DeSantis in the gubernatorial race in November, but then defeated a DeSantis-backed candidate for mayor. Some national Democrats called the upset a bellwether for DeSantis’ presidential race.
The White House said it decided to come to Jacksonville — and LaVilla specifically — because of its significant Black history. LaVilla after the Civil War became a center of art, music and theater known as "the Harlem of the South."
Mayor Donna Deegan greeted Harris on the tarmac Friday. She told reporters: "We certainly have a very large Black population here, one that has been very vocal on this issue. I think that is a way to make folks feel like they have a champion here. It can be very disconcerting to hear people talking in these terms about slavery."
Outside the theater, hundreds of people waited in line for a seat to listen to Harris. Among them was recently retired Duval County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene.
"It is vitally important to all students to learn the truth about African American history and [Harris'] voice can certainly lend the prominence and importance to this issue," Greene told Jacksonville Today.
Jacksonville City Council member Ju'Coby Pittman walked to the theater from her job leading the Clara White Mission, an agency serving the less fortunate, a few blocks away.
"It is very impactful to know that we have some help and thoughts about what is going on here in Florida from the White House," Pittman said.
Harris reiterated her support for local resistance movements, telling the audience at the Ritz Theatre she traveled here "to remind folks in Florida that you're not fighting out here by yourselves. We believe in you. We believe in the people of Florida."
Reporter Dan Scanlan and senior producer Heather Schatz of WJCT News contributed to this report.
Copyright 2023 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.