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In a last-minute decision, Black Florida Republican Congressman Byron Donalds (R-FL 19th District) backed out of a panel discussion on Black History that featured Nikole Hannah-Jones at the 2023 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Conference in Birmingham, Alabama, on Friday.
NABJ, an organization dedicated to supporting Black journalists in the U.S., hosted a panel discussion titled, “The Battle Over Black History” inside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center at 9 a.m. on Friday.
The panel involved professors, historians, a preacher, and journalists, including Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project. Yet two legislators who were slated to attend failed to show up, including Florida Congressman Byron Donalds.
Despite being a strong supporter of some of the most far-right, White nationalist members of Congress, Rep. Donalds criticized the new Florida standards on Black history announced by Florida Republican Governor and 2024 Presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis.
Byron Donalds backs out of Black history panel with Black journalists
Along with downplaying the depravity of American chattel slavery, the new Florida standards include teaching students that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The Florida Department of Education’s new standards were heavily criticized by progressive leaders across the nation, including the NAACP and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“There is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery,” VP Harris said after DeSantis challenged her to a debate on the issue.
The change in curriculum for young minds represents “an attempt to bring our country back to a 19th century America where Black life was not valued, nor our rights protected,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson added.
Meanwhile, Florida Congressman Byron Donalds, who helped write and pass legislation that limits critical discussions on race in the classroom, gave a mild rebuke of the historically inaccurate new standards.
“The attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery is wrong & needs to be adjusted,” Donalds posted in a statement on social media. “That obviously wasn’t the goal & I have faith that FLDOE will correct this.”
Yet the Black Republican, who has been silent on DeSantis’ previous attacks on Black history, voting rights and free speech protests stood behind the majority of the new curriculum. Notably, the new curriculum highlights African enslavers while downplaying the White supremacist figures, policies and structures that enacted the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Donalds supports DeSantis’ opponent, twice-impeached former President Donald Trump, for the 2024 Republican Primary nomination.
Nikole Hannah-Jones criticizes Byron Donalds’
In skipping Friday’s NABJ panel event, Byron Donalds denied Black journalists an opportunity to question his motivations.
Event organizer Vanessa Williams, Deputy National Politics Editor for The Washington Post, said Donalds had a “scheduling conflict.”
“They say they want to debate, but they don’t want to debate the people who actually have facts and knowledge,” award-winning journalist and Knight Chair of Race and Journalism at Howard University Nikole Hannah-Jones said in response to Donalds’ sudden cancelation.
The publishing of the 1619 Project in 2019 tied today’s systemic racism to the first arrival of enslaved Africans to the Americas as foundational to the American story. It received widespread backlash from conservatives across the nation.
A year later, the largest, multicultural racial justice uprising in the nation, sparked by the police lynching of George Floyd, led to many conservative leaders turning backlash into policy.
Oklahoma Republican denies race played a role in Tulsa Race Massacre
Critical Race Theory, a college-level philosophy which argues the remnants of systemic racism continue to remain throughout society, was banned in Florida and other states. Following Florida’s lead, Oklahoma also passed a law in recent years making it illegal to teach about race in ways that make White students feel uncomfortable.
The vague and ahistorical legislation has led to a chilling effect among teachers worried about losing their jobs, an issue Florida Congressman Byron Donalds has helped to create.
In recent weeks, Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters, a white nationalist who supports the quasi-Confederate organization Moms for Liberty, backtracked after saying racism didn’t cause the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a city-sanctioned White mob burned, bombed, looted and murdered residents of the Historic Greenwood District, home to the original Black Wall Street, according to the Tulsa Historical Society.
Oklahoma Republican apologizes after questioning whether race played role in Tulsa Race Massacre
This week, one of the authors of Oklahoma’s anti-Black history law, Republican Rep. Sherrie Conley (R-Newcastle), continued to cast doubt on the role race played in the Massacre.
“It’s just a terrible tragedy in our state, and whether or not it was actually racism that caused the thoughts of the people that started it — we can try to speculate but to know for sure, I don’t think that we can,” Conley said, according to the Frontier, a local investigative news outlet.
On Friday morning, the same day Donalds skipped the NABJ Black history panel, Rep. Conley apologized for her earlier comments.
“It is a well-established historical fact that the Tulsa Race Massacre was motivated by race. I was attempting to convey that I can never know another individual’s true intent because I cannot think their thoughts, nor was I alive during the time this event happened. I would like to apologize for any hurt caused by my statements,” Rep. Conley said in a curated statement.
No debate needed: Racism caused the Tulsa Race Massacre
Conley’s statement and backtrack come amid a climate of disinformation about Black history as far-right figures seek to turn factual events and issues of race into a public debate.
Established as the 46th state in 1907, Oklahoma’s very first law passed was Senate Bill 1, a Jim Crow bill that segregated public transportation and classified Europeans and Indigenous people as “White” for the purposes of enforcing the law.
Decades later, on May 31, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune released a news article titled falsely inflaming racist tensions helped to incite long-sought violence against the Greenwood District during the Red Summer, a time in which Whites attacked Black communities across the nation.
Nikole Hannah-Jones says conservatives fear teaching true history
Oklahoma, previously known as Indian Territory, was once home to over 50 All-Black towns, the most of any state. Blacks seeking freedom from the Jim Crow South flocked to the area. Others had been there since being enslaved by the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek Nations, forced to join them on a death march to Indian Territory in the 1830s.
Efforts to make Oklahoma the first and only All-Black state reached the ears of Congress, yet White Oklahomans ensured those aspirations would never materialize. Generations later, White Republican lawmakers across the country continue to push back against social, political and economic progress for Black Americans in a society their ancestors built through forced labor.
According to Hannah-Jones, their motivation for this latest racial backlash reflects conservative fears of a new generation demanding an equitable society.
”If you think that Black suffering is caused by Black people doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” you’re going to support policy that punishes people, she explained.
“If you believe that Black suffering is because we have a 400-year system” of racism, “then you’re gonna pass policy that’s structural, and why would people in power want any type of structural change?”
Congressman Byron Donalds did not respond to a request to for comment from The Black Wall Street Times.