Yohuru Williams was in Selma, Ala., with leaders of a voter justice and education organization when he had the idea.
Williams, a history and law professor at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic institution in Minnesota, and the group Common Power were there for the March 7 anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
On that date in 1965, Alabama law enforcement beat and tear-gassed marchers as they were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The event galvanized the African American civil rights movement, and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Williams said it’s part of history “that’s being erased.”
But the epicenter of legislation centering on race and education isn’t in Alabama these days, but in a bordering state, led by a possible presidential contender.
“We should do a teach-in; we should highlight the history that’s being erased,” Williams said he told the Common Power leaders. “But we should also do it in Florida.”
Terry Anne Scott—a former associate professor and history department chair at Maryland’s Hood College who last year founded the Institute for Common Power, Common Power’s educational arm—said she and Williams reached out to scholars and activists they knew around the country.
Scott said the group had to hire off-duty police officers for security after trying to get the word out about the event.
“We received hundreds of negative responses—hundreds,” she said. An anonymous Twitter user tweeted at the organization that it shouldn’t be teaching kids “That CRT racist garbage,” and “you WILL BE dealt WITH!!! Keep fucking AROUND you’re ABOUT to find out.”
“To teach history, we had to have protection,” she said.
Nevertheless, for about 24 hours last week, starting around 6 p.m. Wednesday and going through the night, current and former professors, K-12 teachers, and others lectured online and in person at St. Petersburg’s Greater Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Topics varied from “Voter Disenfranchisement: An American Story” to “Black Studies’ Bold Beginnings: The Decolonization of Knowledge” to even “Teaching Black History in Canada.”
Williams, who also leads St. Thomas’s Racial Justice Initiative, said his work “pivots around historical recovery.” He told Inside Higher Ed that’s the “idea that we consistently find ourselves in these George Floyd moments, these Breonna Taylor moments, these Florida moments” because “we don’t know our history.”
During one of the speeches last week, he mentioned Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, and Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor of Virginia.
“What DeSantis and Youngkin and others have done is alter the way that people are thinking about our reality: that, somehow, diversity, equity and inclusion are a bad thing,” Williams said. “That, somehow, talking about our history undermines the fabric of democracy when, in fact, that’s always what has propelled democracy forward.”