Baptist minister and retired Arkansas judge Wendell Griffen stood before an audience of faith leaders and education advocates in Tallahassee, Fla., March 9, pointed to his lapel and dared Gov. Ron DeSantis to have him apprehended for being politically and racially aware.
“I wore a ‘woke’ button on purpose. I want to get arrested for being woke. I plead guilty to being woke. I want to be convicted of being woke,” Griffen said during a prayer breakfast sponsored by Pastors for Florida Children.
Griffen, a BNG columnist and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, urged the in-person and virtual interfaith and multiracial audience to be equally defiant of Florida’s political leaders. “Be a community of prophets but teach as one and correct, confront, organize, interact, defy, dissent, disrupt.”
Jewish, Christian and Muslim participants who prayed ahead of the speeches by Griffen and education historian Diane Ravitch focused on DeSantis’ prohibition of books that teach about racial injustice and inclusion.
Griffen brought Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders into the conversation because she had signed a bill the previous day creating school vouchers and prohibiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Arkansas public schools.
The anti-education measures in both states, along with those proposed by some in the U.S. Congress, represent “Confederate States of America thinking,” Griffen said.
“Every voucher demand … is a Confederate States of America raid on the truth about history, science, sociology and economics.”
“Every voucher demand … is a Confederate States of America raid on the truth about history, science, sociology and economics,” he declared. “Everything to prohibit public schools from teaching about the history of bigotry, discrimination and hate of this society is a 21st century attempt to transform every public school into the Woodrow Wilson White House” and to “validate bigotry, ignorance and distrust about marginalized people.”
Restricting critical thinking about race and history from public schools and seeking to fund white Christian private schools is part of a “calculated attack on democracy,” he said.
“We’re talking about how you create a fascist society. There is nothing new or innovative about censorship concerning what students can read and learn and explore together. There is nothing new about using the government to shut down freedom to learn together, work together, play together and live together. That’s not reform. That’s not progress. That is retrenchment. It is a return to Jim Crow apartheid.”
Griffen urged the gathering to look into the past for glimpses of the future now unfolding before them: “It is important to remember that in the earliest days of this society, education was a privilege, not a right.”
While the public education that began to evolve in the 19th century was open to children regardless of gender or socioeconomic status, it remained racially segregated with poorly funded Black schools, Griffen said. And when desegregation was mandated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, whites sought alternative forms of education.
“Parents complained they had the right to choose where they wanted their children to go. Those are the same kinds of assertions I’m hearing now about school choice and about universal vouchers,” he said. “Hence, I know the current assertions about school choice and education reform and universal vouchers are merely old trash in new packages.”
“The current assertions about school choice and education reform and universal vouchers are merely old trash in new packages.”
Likewise, bans on books and Critical Race Theory in public schools represent an attempt to return to a time when Black history did not exist as a topic for American students, he said. “It is important that we remember the challenges to public education you’re experiencing in Florida and we are experiencing in Arkansas and elsewhere across the United States are not new. This is merely a reimagined, re-costumed and repurposed version of the Jim Crow system.”
That system is based on an erroneous demand that private education should be publicly funded, he asserted.
“If parents want to educate their children at home or in private schools, be they sectarian or secular, they are free to do so,” the retired circuit court judge said. “If parents want their children to be ignorant about the rich cultural diversity of our society and about the mistakes and the wrongs we have committed against people because of their differences, they are free to do so. If parents want to raise ignorant children, they are free to do so. But they do not have a right in Florida, in Arkansas or anywhere else to demand a subsidy from the public education system. No parent has a right to demand that we dismantle the education system because they do not like their children knowing science, knowing history and knowing about the experience of other people in society.”
That is the message students, parents, activists, churches and clergy must use to oppose DeSantis, Sanders and others who want to dismantle public education and democracy, Griffen advised. “I have come to urge you to be united and defiant. Be united and disruptive. Be united and disobedient. Be united examples of dissent and prophetic integrity in the face of imperial tyranny and unchecked authoritarianism.”
United action must include legal fights, he added. “Find lawyers who will take you as clients to mount legal challenges to the school-choice agenda. Yes, there are strong and sound First Amendment and 14th Amendment legal challenges.”
Joining the group via Zoom was speaker Diane Ravitch, founder and president of the Network for Public Education and assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush.
Ravitch opened with a double-barreled barrage at DeSantis’ efforts to dismantle freedom of inquiry in public schools.
“I write a daily blog, and I find that it’s being overwhelmed by the bad news from Florida,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be anything good coming from your elected officials. If anything, it seems to be building a more and more authoritarian empire to control the thinking of everybody in the state.”
She said DeSantis seems to be going out of his way to disprove Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“Your governor and your legislature are trying to flatten that arc so that it does not bend
towards justice,” she declared.
“Your governor is creating a model of thought control and calling it freedom.”
Current political events in Florida do not impact public schools alone, Ravitch said. “Florida today is at the very apex of a movement to turn the clock back a century, to turn the clock back on religious freedom, on racial justice and on all the evolution we have experienced over this past century to make ours a more just society. Your governor is creating a model of thought control and calling it freedom. Every time I see him standing in front of a banner that says ‘freedom,’ I’m reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, where freedom equals slavery.”
The conservative attack on the concept of “woke” is another sign of burgeoning authoritarianism, she said.
“We have to redeem that word. It means being awake — awake to injustice, awake to history, awake to all the things that are wrong in our society and that have been wrong over the centuries. And his (DeSantis’) idea of woke is simply to eliminate critical thinking about history and even knowledge of history. And this is very dangerous.”
Florida’s war on Critical Race Theory is more evidence that DeSantis and his allies want to vilify truth, she said. “Critical Race Theory is absolutely a vital aspect of understanding our history. In fact, I’d say that you have to understand Critical Race Theory to understand what’s happening today in Florida and in many parts of the country where voting rights are being curbed and where states are being gerrymandered.”
Ravitch lauded the interfaith unity displayed during the prayer breakfast. But she said more is needed.
“I urge you to grow your numbers, build your alliances. A new coalition must be built to awaken the people of Florida to the true values of being awake, of love, of mutual respect, of kindness, of thinking, of courage, of intellectual courage and of concern for others. These are the values that should be taught in schools … and don’t let your governor tell you otherwise.”
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