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What It Means When DeSantis Plays God

by Dick Batchelor

Mar 2, 2023 | Race

Hunter Crenian

Not all Floridians have reacted passively to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ racially divisive and politically motivated attacks on intellectual freedom and the teaching of history in the public schools. The author of this letter, Dick Batchelor, a former state legislator and Chair of the Central Florida Urban League, has a long history as a civic leader and an activist on behalf of racial justice in the Orlando community and across the state of Florida.

Dear Governor DeSantis,

Your keen interest in directing the teaching of history got me thinking about my own history and whether I would even be able to share it in a Florida classroom or corporate training session without penalty.

You see, as a white child growing up with sharecropper parents in rural North Carolina during the early 1950s, I often heard guarded whispers about the Ku Klux Klan and their so-called activities. I was aware that some relatives were members and they claimed “bragging rights” about how much they hated Black people (though that hardly was the name they often used).

Later, when I was still a child, my family moved to Orlando. I remember going to shows at the Rialto and Beacham theaters, but while I could sit wherever I wanted, Black children were only allowed in the balcony.

I attended school at a time before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or integration took place. There were no Black students in my high school. The only time my classmates and I would see Black students was when band members from the segregated Jones High School marched in the Orlando Christmas Parade.

Even though desegregation was finally ordered in 1968, the Orange County School Board, in an attempt to be clever (and in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education), decided to pick names of teachers from a jar and assign those randomly chosen white teachers to work in schools with Black students.

There was such overt resistance to school integration that it took almost 50 years for the system to be in full compliance. Fifty years! And let’s not forget that in Orlando, there was not a single Black city council member elected until 1972.

Valuable history, don’t you think, Gov. DeSantis?

There’s more.

With no Black students in any of my schools and only briefly knowing a Black field hand from our sharecropping days, I didn’t meet and befriend a Black person until I volunteered for the Marines in 1966. That year, James Johnson became my friend, and we remained close throughout the Vietnam War and afterward until he died last year.

James taught me a lot about race and the intentionally shameful ways in which Black people were treated—not only by individual white people but by the police powers of government itself.

Fast-forward to today. As I remember and reflect on my past, I wonder, Gov. DeSantis, can I legally share this truthful yet sordid history with a high school or college class? How about at a company diversity training session? Does the truth need defense in the “free state of Florida”?

Through your attack on what you deem “woke” culture, you are casually and spitefully invoking the police powers of the state to deny history—history that must be told. These attacks coupled with your recent rejection of an AP course on African American history represent a cruel pattern of discrimination and remind me of how anti-literacy laws were used to deprive so many Black people of the ability to read or write.

As one who volunteered to serve our country in Vietnam, with the understanding that my service was in part to preserve all rights guaranteed in the First Amendment, I propose we continue open, unabridged and unvarnished discussions with one another about the history of race in our country.

Let the truth be heard, Gov. DeSantis, and let the so-called Woke Law be consigned to the only place it belongs: history.


—Dick Batchelor, Orlando, Florida

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