Ron DeSantis invokes Martin Luther King Jr in ‘Stop Woke Act’ proposal against critical race theory

Republican officials selectively pull from civil rights leader’s words as they condemn what they perceive as an ahistorical attack in Americans schools

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 16 December 2021 06:44
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Ron DeSantis invokes MLK Jr with ‘Stop Woke Act’ proposal

Republican officials have repeatedly appropriated quotes attributed to Martin Luther King Jr to defend their opposition to “critical race theory” without mentioning his activism and honest discussions about race and inequality.

As he proposed his “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act”, or “Stop WOKE Act”, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis once again invoked the late civil rights leader’s 1963 speech during the March on Washington.

“You think about what MLK stood for,” Mr DeSantis said on 15 December. “He said he didn’t want people judged on the colour of their skin, but on the content of their character. You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don’t talk about that.”

Earlier this year, he claimed that the framework to address the legacies of slavery and racism in the US is “basically teaching kids to hate our country and to hate each other based on race.”

“It puts race as the most important thing,” he said. “I want content of character to be the most important thing.”

Republican officials from Donald Trump to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy have also selectively pulled from Dr King’s words as they condemn what they perceive as an ahistorical attack in Americans schools.

In his remarks, Dr King said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

“Critical race theory” – largely restricted to higher education and legal circles to discuss race as a social concept – has emerged as a catch-all phrase to condemn lessons as well as books on racism and gender, as well as diversity training and equity initiatives.

Earlier this year, Florida’s state Board of Education banned “critical race theory” from public school classroom to shield students from teachings that “distort historical events.”

The governor’s new proposal, which he will present to state lawmakers next year, would give parents “private right of action” to sue if they believe their children are taught critical race theory.

It also would also apply to the workplace, according to the governor’s office.

A law in Oklahoma, which was the first state to pass such a law, bars any teachings that cast anyone as “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or make them feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.

At least eight states have passed similar laws this year, and lawmakers in more than half of all US states proposed related legislation.

Though the laws do not directly reference the theory, they follow right-wing media attention and criticism of concepts like The 1619 Project, as well as a coordinated campaign from conservative activists aided by dozens of newly formed local and national groups, conservative think tanks, law firms and GOP lawmakers to raise the issue at school board meetings.

Dr King’s family have repeatedly rebuked Republicans’ misuse of his words.

“The word ‘woke’ has been repurposed to deter the very work that people focused on awareness about injustice and on the urgent need to eradicate injustice were centering the word to accomplish,” his youngest daughter Bernice King said on Wednesday.

“Many will distort a positive narrative so that white supremacy can persist,” she said.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, written four months before the March on Washington, Dr King responded to “A Call for Unity” from a group of white clergymen’s reaction to the civil rights movement.

He asserted an imperative to collect facts “to determine whether injustices exist” as he named them, from police brutality and wealth inequality to antidemocratic threats to voting rights. The letter also famously rebuts “unjust laws” as well as white moderates with a “shallow understanding” of injustice.

“One day the South will recognise its real heroes,” he wrote.

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