Florida’s Stop Woke Act is latest in a long history of censoring Black scholarship
Educators found ways to resist – both inside and outside the classroom
America has been declaring war on Black education since this country’s beginnings. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Stop Woke Act and criticism of an Advanced Placement class in African American history is part of a pattern of white people in power censoring Black scholarship, literature, and intellectuality. Running against this centurieslong tide of censorship is Black resistance – both within the classroom and outside of it.
W.E.B. Du Bois, in his 1935 opus, Black Reconstruction in America, devoted a chapter to showing how white educators falsified American history. The iron fist of Jim Crow made it unlawful for teachers to engage with civil rights and Black culture materials inside classrooms.
But Black educators found a way to resist. In 1933, for instance, Tessie McGee taught history at the only Black school in Webster Parish, Louisiana. In a dangerous and quiet act of rebellion, McGee would have the approved reading materials visible should a principal walk into her classroom unannounced. Meanwhile, she read aloud to her students from The Negro in Our History, historian Carter G. Woodson’s influential book, which lay hidden on her lap.
One student from McGee’s class remembered the risk she took to teach Black history: “She read to us from that book,” the student recalled. “When the principal would come in, she would … simply lift her eyes to the outline that resided on the desk and teach us from the outline. When the principal disappeared, her eyes went back to the book in her lap …”
In 1941, when Madeline Stratton Morris became a teacher in Chicago, there were no Black history courses. Morris, with support from Woodson and Phi Delta Kappa Sorority, and the help of fellow teacher and research assistant, Bessie King, created the first Black history curriculum adopted by Chicago Public Schools in 1942.
In the 1960s, the educational resistance movement became louder and more public with the development of Liberation Schools, the Black Panther Party’s Intercommunal Youth Institute and the Black Campus Movement. Black Power as a slogan, as a movement, and as a space for education owes much of its legacy to Mississippi.
Ten years after Brown vs. Board of Education, Mississippi schools remained segregated and teachers were surveilled by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a governmental unit that monitored civil rights activity and closely watched classroom instruction and syllabuses. By engaging with Black culture, educators risked their jobs and lives.
That did not deter educators’ and activists’ determination to transform their relationship to white supremacy. In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Council of Federated Organizations and the NAACP launched Mississippi Summer Project, a voter registration and educational campaign designed to challenge political and educational discrimination.
A crucial part of the effort was the Freedom Schools, which opened during the first week of July in 1964. An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 students attended classes at more than 40 schools across Mississippi. There were no tests nor mandatory attendance like in traditional schools, so the success of Freedom School instructors, mostly college students from Northern states, depended on students’ willingness to participate and engage with discussion. Freedom Schools raised questions about democracy, Brown vs. Board of Education, and the U.S. Constitution. Having a voice during Freedom Summer gave students the courage to use their voices in formal educational settings as well as question Mississippi’s deeply flawed educational system.
Although the Freedom Schools taught reading, writing, arithmetic, civic and history, many students were drawn to activism. Students helped with voter registration, attended meetings, marches, sit-ins and protests. Many students were also motivated to work on Freedom News, a collective of newspapers published by Freedom School students.
Within the first two weeks of Freedom Summer there were 12 Freedom News publications across the state. Titles included Freedom Star, Palmer’s Crossing Freedom, and Freedom Carrier, and Benton County Freedom Train, among others. Kids and young adults huddled inside churches, tidy living rooms, and basements, carefully tapping on typewriters and pumping out stories for Freedom News. These newspapers, like Freedom Summer classrooms, created a vehicle for Black children to exercise their growing political awareness. In writing for Freedom News, students were able to respond to inequalities they faced both systemically and in their everyday lives that mainstream newspapers largely ignored.
Freedom News papers were distributed at barbershops, hair salons, churches, restaurants, candy and grocery stores. Students reported on the latest events within the civil rights and Black Power movements. They gave updates on meetings and reported arrests during community meetings. Students also reported on upcoming protests, sharing details on how to join demonstrations.
The reporting also gave children the latitude, and a voice, to criticize adults, particularly grown folk reluctant to participate in community activism. In Hattiesburg, one student, Lynda C, criticized teachers at her local school: “Some of the Negro students have been complaining about their teachers. They said their teachers do not give any information about the freeing of their people,” she wrote in Palmer’s Crossing Freedom.
Another student, Curtis D, wrote — also in Palmer’s Crossing Freedom: “I WOULD LIKE very much to see the Negros in America treated as they were human…. I WOULD LIKE very much to see the reaction of the Negros when they get their freedom.”
Their critique may sound naive, but it shows pride in their community and the creativity needed to reimagine what America could be.
Freedom School and Freedom News created a form of educational liberation that was not allowed in public schools while also providing students a space to challenge and examine blueprints that built white supremacy, which, in turn, enabled them to examine the vulnerability of Black lives.
Current high school students inherited those spaces. For instance, Alexis Mburu and Kaley Duong, recipients of the Black Educational Matters Student Activists Award in 2022, led workshops, demonstrations, and a Teach the Truth rally in Seattle that challenged legislation aimed to keep the topics of racism, sexism, heterosexism and heteronormativity out of classrooms.
Alternative educational opportunities created during the 1960s were as diverse and broad as the Black experience. In 1968, teachers, scholars, parents, students and activists gathered at a national conference for Black teachers to form the National Association of Afro-American Educators. Inspired by the association, college students Earl Jones, Robert Starks and Standish Willis organized a Midwest Black student conference on the South Side of Chicago. Jones, Starks and Willis along with parents, professors, activists and fellow students discussed inadequacies in the Chicago public schools. These meetings led to the formation of Communiversity, an alternative educational space aimed at countering white supremacy in education. Communiversity’s Saturday school program operated under four themes: African American cultural nationalism, Marxist/Socialist and Communist thought, Black psychology and research.
In the winter of 1969, Communiversity began its educational program, a Saturday school taught by college and university professors. It served hundreds of students, including parents, elementary and high school students, laborers, college students, activists, and others with courses in law, colonial culture, African American history, Black literature, Black nationalism, and several other subjects. Thinkers such as John Henrik Clarke, Harold Cruse, Yosef ben Jochannan, Chancellor Williams also gave lectures at Communiversity.
The pursuit of Black education, however, continues to be a struggle. In Jackson, Mississippi, Albert Sykes, executive director of The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), and a mentee of civil rights activist Bob Moses, is dedicated to creating alternative educational spaces. “We want to change the narrative on education in Jackson,” Sykes said to Andscape.
In 2010, educators, parents and community organizers created the institute to provide education that is relevant to young people as well as promote action around racial justice. The institute also has programs in Puerto Rico, and Seattle.
One class is about prejudice, Skyes said. “We look at, and act out, how labels influence how we interact with people. So, we’ll put students in crisis situations, and say: ‘This person has two felonies, this person has AIDS, this person is gay. There’s a flood, and only eight people can fit in the boat, but there are 13 people trying to escape.’ People automatically start removing people based on labels.”
It hasn’t been an easy journey.
“We get threats and dangerous comments on social media, “Skyes said. “When people find out what we teach, you see a budding relationship just stop. ‘No, we don’t want to upset the governor, or the secretary of education.’ ”
In Florida, of course, the governor is already upset. From the slave quarters to the brave educators of the Jim Crow era to Liberation schools, Black folks have proven expert at creating fresh pedagogies and alternative institutions. It would be beneficial to have unfiltered AP African American studies courses in the state’s public schools. But if history is any guide, the state’s war on Black history and culture won’t suppress the collective power of Black imagination and creativity.