Democratic governors holding the line to protect Black history and books

Democratic governors are on the frontlines in the battle over the teachings of race and Black history, seeking to advance access to literature and curriculums on the African-American experience through the critical periods of U.S. slavery, racial segregation and institutional racism. 

Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida, Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Arkansas and Glenn Youngkin in Virginia have used their state executive powers to ban books on race and prevent the teaching of Advanced Placement courses on African-American studies. School boards led by conservatives have enacted such bans on the local level. 

The conservative lawmakers and school board officials have argued that said books and courses on race are indoctrinating America’s youth and causing white children to “feel bad” about themselves. However, critics have argued that such bans not only deprive a new generation of knowing America’s true history but also perpetuate ideas of anti-Blackness and racial inequality. 

By contrast, Democratic governors have used their executive authority to push back against the growing conservative movement that has banned thousands of books and put a stop to courses that education experts say benefit students, improve their understanding of race and diversity and enhance their critical thinking skills.

Maryland’s Wes Moore, the nation’s lone Black governor and only the sixth in U.S. history, declared 2024 his state’s “Year of Civil Rights.” At an event commemorating the state initiative, the 45-year-old rising Democratic star urged Marylanders to “get out into our communities” and “practice our history … [and] protect our history.”

While delivering the 2023 commencement address at Morehouse College, Moore chastised Republican lawmakers for leading statewide bans and questioned their motivations. 

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore criticized Republican lawmakers’ book-banning efforts when he spoke in May at Morehouse College’s commencement ceremony in Atlanta. (Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

“When politicians ban books and muzzle educators, they say it’s an effort to prevent discomfort, guilt — but we know that’s not true,” said Maryland’s first Black governor. “This is not about a fear of making people feel bad. It is about a fear of people understanding their power.”

“A threat to any history is a threat to all history,” added Moore. “I’m talking about everyone in this country who has been a part of the American story — and who are watching the stories of those who came before us be wiped away.”

In a statement to theGrio, Gov. Moore said, “Black History Month reminds us that our present is the result of the fights, struggles and victories of those who came before us. And when you hold that truth close to your heart, you quickly realize there is nothing you cannot achieve.”

“Those who seek to erase history are taking direct aim at a unique source of strength and pride within all of our communities — because those who do not learn their past will never know their power,” he continued. “It’s why we must stand together to protect our history and be unapologetic about it.”

Other Democratic governors have also spoken up and used the power of their executive pens to advance the teaching of Black history and protect books on race, primarily written by Black authors, from censorship. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill last year prohibiting school boards across the state from banning books, instructional materials or educational courses categorized as inclusive or diverse. The legislation allows the state to levy fines against school boards that defy the law.

Illinois became the first state to pass legislation prohibiting book bans in public libraries when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law stipulating that libraries can only access state grants if they abide by the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states that “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill prohibiting the state’s school boards from banning inclusive or diverse educational materials and books. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy expanded AP African-American studies courses in the state. Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a bill requiring public schools in his state to teach specific aspects of Black history, like the impact of slavery on the U.S. economy and the role racism played in the Civil War.

In June 2023, 10 Democratic governors authored a letter to publishers opposing school textbook censorships, accusing them of caving in to the “unreasonable” demands of Republican governors.

“It is an important priority of our administrations to ensure that any educational materials censored to appeal to political pressure do not negatively impact our educational goals and values in our states,” the letter read. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum and a leading scholar on critical race theory, told theGrio she welcomes the actions of some Democratic governors to fight back against the censorship of Black history in schools. She described the measures as “long-awaited steps.” 

“As a result of anti-CRT measures enacted by right-wing politicians over the course of the last few years, nearly half of American children now go to public schools where there are limits on what they can learn about racism and the full history of our nation,” said Crenshaw. 

She continued: “If we do not meet this challenge head-on, the health of our democracy will only continue to erode. The stakes could not be higher, and the time for a coordinated, intersectional approach to defend our democracy is now.”

Crenshaw called on the U.S. Congress and the White House to “join the efforts of these governors” by addressing the censorship of Black history, which she characterized as a “growing threat to values that are essential in a democracy.” Those values, she said, are “our freedom to read and to learn.”

While governors are taking up the mantle in the absence of legislation or policies coming out of Washington, D.C., leaders in grassroots communities are also doing their part to protect Black history and books.

Crenshaw’s African American Policy Forum kicked off its “Books Unbanned” HBCU tour last week. The social justice think tank said the tour intends to partner with students, faculty and staff to fight educational censorship. At its kickoff event, the organization handed out over 400 books.

Similarly, the progressive advocacy organization People For the American Way held a Black History Month teach-in at a community center in Florida, which is considered ground zero for book bans and Black history censorship. The group was joined by U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones and other local leaders.

A protest sign is shown at a “Walkout 2 Learn” rally in April outside City Hall in Orlando, Florida. Students and others were reacting to Florida’s education policies. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Svante Myrick, president of People For the American Way, told theGrio the Sunday event was hosted in Eatonville, one of the first self-governing all-Black municipalities in the United States, to “lift up” its history. The town was established shortly after enslaved Black people were emancipated. 

Myrick applauded the actions of Democratic governors who are fighting back against censorship on Black history and culture, telling theGrio he’s “very encouraged” by their efforts. However, he said People For the American Way remains “concerned about the futures and the minds of students.”

The former mayor of Ithaca, New York, cited data that exposes education disparities between students in blue Democratic states and students in red states controlled by Republicans. 

“Students raised in the blue states, on average, end up with higher levels of education attainment,” Myrick noted. “I’m worried that that gap will only widen if the federal government fails to act.”

Democratic governors, he said, continue to make “responsible moves to protect students,” and Republican governors continue to “make odd and politically motivated choices when it comes to schools and censorship.”

Ultimately, Black history is American history, said Myrick, and in order for the U.S. to be the great nation it proclaims to be, its citizens must know all of the nation’s history.  

“Students who don’t understand American history won’t be good citizens,” he said. “They won’t be good voters. They won’t be successful in our workplace and competitive on a global scale.”

“It’s really important that students get good civics and history education,” Myrick added, “and yes, that includes Black history and LGBTQ history.”

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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Democratic governors are leading the charge in promoting access to literature and curriculums on the African-American experience, including teachings on U.S. slavery, racial segregation, and institutional racism. Meanwhile, Republican governors like Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin have used their executive powers to ban books and prevent the teaching of Advanced Placement courses on African-American studies. These conservative lawmakers argue that such materials are indoctrinating America’s youth, while critics contend that these bans perpetuate anti-Blackness and racial inequality. Democratic governors like Wes Moore of Maryland and Gavin Newsom of California are pushing back against these bans, signing bills to protect books on race and advance the teaching of Black history. The African American Policy Forum and People For the American Way are also taking action to fight educational censorship and protect Black history. Critics emphasize the importance of teaching all aspects of American history, including Black history, to shape well-rounded citizens and help students succeed in the global landscape.

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