After Marvin Dunn heard that a Florida textbook publisher had removed mention of race in its lesson about Rosa Parks for fear of being caught in the crosshairs of Gov. Ron DeSantis and his underlings at the Department of Education, the Black historian and author decided he had to act.
"We will not allow DeSantis to kill our history," Dunn tells New Times. "We just won't allow it. We will take our history directly to the parents if that's what's required, and apparently, it is what is required."
Dunn, a professor emeritus at Florida International University, says he and his nonprofit, Miami Center for Racial Justice, are launching a banned book project to ensure students learn about African American history at a time when Florida's Stop WOKE Act is restricting the teaching of systemic racism in schools. He hopes to directly connect with parents to provide banned titles and books that teach topics restricted under the 2022 law.
"We're going to acquire books that have been banned by the state of Florida, particularly in Miami-Dade County schools but also in other school districts around the state," Dunn says. "We're going to contact the parent-teacher associations... and ask if they're interested in receiving some of the banned books that they may distribute to their children. We will provide these at no cost to the parents."
Part of the DeSantis administration's crackdown on so-called "woke indoctrination," HB 7 (AKA the Stop WOKE Act) took effect in July 2022.
The bill prohibits public schools from teaching the idea that people are "privileged or oppressed" on the basis of their race, national origin, or sex. It also bans teaching that a person's race, national origin, or sex can lead to unconscious or conscious biases.
In November 2022, a district judge blocked enforcement of the law at Florida colleges and universities in a lawsuit filed by a group of Florida educators, including Dunn. The decision is on appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.
The Stop WOKE Act, rebranded as the Individual Freedom Act, along with new Florida regulations prohibiting classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity, have led to hundreds of instances of temporary and permanent removal of books from public schools. The restrictions have enabled anti-"woke" advocacy groups and parents to flood local school districts with book removal demands.
Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates by Jonah Winter and Raúl Colón was temporarily removed from public school libraries in Duval County for review earlier this year. The book about the late Afro-Puerto Rican baseball star was pulled from the shelves to ensure its references to racism and discrimination were in line with state law, a school district official said. It was subsequently returned to school libraries after the county determined it was approved for student use.
In another case, textbook publisher Studies Weekly, which provides social studies materials to kindergarten through sixth grade in Florida, removed mention of race from its lesson on civil rights activist Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955.
On the page titled, "Responsible Citizens in History," the lesson initially stated that Parks "was told to move to a different seat because of the color of her skin." But a revised version removed the phrase "because of the color of her skin" so that the passage cryptically read, "Rosa Parks showed courage. One day, she rode the bus. She was told to move to a different seat. She did not. She did what she believed was right."
The state's Department of Education denied having a role in the removal of Parks' race in the material. Studies Weekly told CNN that members of its curriculum team "severely overreacted in their interpretation of HB 7 and made unapproved revisions."
Dunn calls the omission an "act of white-washing or erasing Black history."
While DeSantis maintains that the state curriculum requires lessons about slavery and segregation as historical events, the Stop WOKE Act and confusion over its "privileged and oppressed" wording, among other clauses, has prompted censorship in school districts from North Florida to Miami Beach as textbook publishers, librarians, and school teachers try to avoid messy entanglements with parents and the DeSantis administration.
According to the nonprofit PEN America, school districts in Florida have banned 357 books between July and December 2022.
"Book banning is a sign that society is sick or in decline," Dunn says. "When you have to start banning books or burning books, you're on the road to autocracy. In a free society, all ideas except those advocating violence are welcomed and should be competing. But this effort by DeSantis is counterproductive to the truth, and it will sink us if we don't do something about it."
Dunn's project is collecting donations to purchase copies of Who Was Rosa Parks? by Yona Zeldis McDonough to distribute to Miami students this fall, a book that Dunn says describes the civil rights icon as a "Black woman, not as a woman without color."
In the wake of DeSantis' Stop WOKE Act, the retired professor has also created "Teach the Truth," a two-day tour where he takes high school students and their families to sites across that state to highlight incidents of racial violence against Black people through Florida's history.
Dunn says he wants to have his first book giveaway at Bunche Park Elementary School in Opa Locka, the school he graduated from in 1953, which was segregated at the time. He hopes others will follow suit and launch similar book distribution efforts.
"My concern is that our kids, not just Black kids, in our Florida schools will not know the very basic things about African American history," Dunn tells New Times. "They will not know about the essential issues that we've held as African Americans in this country or all the triumphs — that's incredibly important for all school kids to know in this day and age. It's very difficult to get the truth to our students, but we are going to try."