In awful synchronicity, on the day thousands honored 1963’s March on Washington where MLK searingly declared, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” a Florida gunman killed three black people in what officials demurely called a “racially motivated” shooting. A sheriff was more frank: “He wanted to kill niggers.” Many say the racist violence was long “festering”; given Ron DeSantis’ toxic rhetoric and record – on guns, diversity, black history and rights – the shooter was “answering a call.”
Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the seminal march of over a quarter million people, this country’s largest demonstration for civil rights; Saturday’s rally was nilled as a “continuation, not a commemoration” to stress the struggles are ongoing. Its sea of banners, t-shirts, signs reflected the hope and rage behind that reality: “Stop Hate…I Am The Dream… Let Us Vote…Put the Gun Down…Black Lives Matter…Good Trouble…We March On…” Speakers addressed the issues of King’s era – poverty, voting rights, police violence – and today’s attacks on black history, abortion access, LGBTQ rights, affirmative action. Actor Sasha Baron decried rising anti-Semitism and growing fear of “the other” amplified by social media – “We’ve gone from the Klan rally to the chat room”; gun-control advocate David Hogg urged Gen Z activists to seek political office: “We are done running away from this issue.” Said MLK’s daughter-in-law Andrea Waters King, “We are here to liberate (the) soul of democracy from those forces who would have us all go backwards and perish. “We are still getting it in different ways,” said one activist. “But Black people are speaking louder…We’re tired, sick and tired, of asking for justice.” Another cited a saying of “our ancestors struggling under slavery: ‘Every shut eye ain’t sleep.’”
The original March on Washington, during the steamy dog days of the capitol 100 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in “the land of the free,” came as America was witnessing the bloody lynchings, bombings, beatings and protests of a nascent civil rights movement. The march was largely organized by activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin; seeking an integrated front, they also brought in white labor organizer Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers. Though women played a key role in the organizing, they were mostly excluded from the program, an act of sexism today’s activists call “perhaps the only flaw in the march.” John Lewis, then the 23-year-old chair of SNCC and one of the first 13 Freedom Riders, was widely deemed the most militant organizer – he’d planned to declare, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did” – but toned it down after pressure from King. “We must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery,” said Lewis, calling for tireless, peaceful demonstrations and “one man, one vote.” “We have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the president, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 just before he turned 28, was the day’s final speaker. When he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his thundering “I Have A Dream” speech before the diverse, joyful crowd – police were there but peaceful – historians argue his eloquent, principled, Gandhi-inspired use of non-violence as a strategy “put him on an unassailable moral plane.” King had written a formal, soaring speech: The Emancipation Proclamation was a “light of hope” to millions of slaves “seared in the flames of withering injustice” ending “the long night of their captivity”; 100 years later, “the Negro (still) not free” from “the chains of discrimination”; the “fierce urgency of now” as the time to rise from darkness until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He was about to sit down when Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell them about your dream, Martin.” He went on to merge bits of past speeches with an improvised yet familiar refrain “deeply rooted in the American dream,” dating to Frederick Douglass and other Black abolitionists, to argue the nation had “tragically strayed from the principles of its founders,” but “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
Among those attending this week’s rally were people in their 70s and 80s who’d been at the first as teens, who recalled the KKK raiding their house as they hid under beds and the informal Black codes like “reckless eyeballing” that forbade them from looking directly at white people on the street. The march, said Frank Stewart, “was a revelation, the first time I saw Black and white people together walking to do something.” Though she didn’t remember anyone carrying flags, said Mera Rubell, “It was.the essence of democracy…I felt like I witnessed the best of America.” Rubell rode to D.C. with other college students on a bus where Harry Belafonte played guitar and sang with them the whole way – a reminder the march was also “a peak moment for the collaborative power of music and politics.” Activist Courtney Cox, who worked with SNCC registering voters in a perilous South – “In Mississippi I always thought I could get away from a bullet, compared to Alabama where they used bombs and dynamite” – recalled the restorative power of hearing Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Freedom Singers. “The music would be the wind beneath your wings,” he said. “SingingWe Shall Overcome when the police were out there with tear gas….The music had advocacy.”
Despite widespread coverage of the march, most paid little attention to King’s iconic speech. Two exceptions were The New York Times James Reston – King “sent the crowd away feeling that the long journey had been worthwhile” – and WaPo’s Carl Bernstein: “I was certain I had experienced the most powerful moment of my lifetime. The ‘some day’ from We Shall Overcome was drawing nearer.” He was (mostly, sadly) wrong. The March helped prod Kennedy to propose a civil rights act – “This nation, for all its hopes (and) boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free…Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise” – and Johnson to sign 1964’s Civil Rights Act and 1965’s Voting Rights Act. But the ensuing years, from the 1980s up to 2020, have seen an endless, ugly whittling away of those rights by Republicans clinging to their power while whining and lying about “illegitimate,” mostly minority voters. Since 2013, 29 states have added 94 restrictions on the right to vote; today’s GOP has proposed a spurious “American Confidence in Elections” Act to limit mail-in ballots and drop boxes, ban giving food or water to voters in line, and allow yet more dark money while overwhelmingly voting down every Democratic effort to protect the right to vote.
As the GOP veers ever further right, racist and fascist – and with the possible exception of Mississippi, where six former cops of a self-described “Goon Squad” face 13 felony charges carrying prison sentences of up to 120 years for the heinous torture of two innocent black men – Ron DeSantis’ Florida may be the most regressive, repressive, demeaning and dangerous place in America today for black people, or any minority, to live. DeSantis’ racism has deep roots, from his fog-horn of a dog-whistle to voters in his 2018 gubernatorial campaign against (black) Democrat Andrew Gillum to not “monkey this up” to his non-history book “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” a dumb dig at our only president of color, wherein he uses cherry-picked quotes from Madison, Hamilton et al as “permission slips to skip the yucky parts” of U.S. history – like slavery, which he dismisses as a “personal flaw” of the Founders, like being late to dinner, and “a fact of life throughout human history.” Little wonder that while segregation, a step up from slavery, was the law of the land in America until the mid-1960s, DeSantis has fashioned an insensate realm that vehemently rejects the notion of systemic racism and white privilege as a twisted “apartheid.” Nobly, blindly, doggedly, he doesn’t see color.
He does, however, punish it. Since coming to power, DeSantis has done everything he can to devalue Black lives, erase Black history, erode Black power and debase, mislead, indoctrinate and marginalize Black kids, and other “others.” Seeking to minimize Black voters, he’s tried to suppress their votes so often a judge noted “Florida seems to have a problem governing within the bounds” of the Constitutition. He barged into a fight to redraw Congressional maps so he could carve up a District long represented by a Black Democrat into four GOP-ish districts, an act so brazenly in defiance of a law protecting minority voters even his GOP legislature opposed it; voters and advocates have sued. He also removed, with help from a political hatchet man, two duly-elected Dem prosecutors, one a Black woman, for doing their jobs: Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell, who was about to crack down on “their cops, the ones who used to do things and get away with them” – she’s called DeSantis “a weak dictator” – and State Attorney Andrew Warren, for “neglect of duty,” aka refusing to prosecute those seeking or providing abortions or gender transition care. Warren sued; though his own appointed judges found DeSantis violated the state’s constitution, Warren lost on a technicality.
Aptly for a fascist bot ever hungry for power, he’s declined to criticize flourishing Nazi groups bearing swastikas, hateful projections and florid “DeSantis Country” signage. He has tried to portray the Nazi rallies as part of a Democratic smear campaign – “Those are not true supporters of mine – that’s an operation to try to link me to something” – and he fired an aide who posted a bonkers video in which the state flag morphs into an actual Nazi emblem with DeSantis’ head. Too much, too soon. Still, not much is. He created an election police force to terrorize African Americans, often former cons, who are told they can vote and are then arrested for it. He signed a law that designates a gathering of three or more “a riot” and awarded civil immunity to anyone who drives a car into protesters. He recruited and gave out hefty bonuses to out-of-state cops frustrated with limits on their abuses, including documented racist attacks. He ended diversity and inclusion initiatives in state colleges, which he called “scams” by “the woke mob,” vetoed mental health funding for survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting after promising to support the LGBTQ+ community, and vowed that members of Mexican drug cartels would be “shot stone cold dead,” never mind due process.
And of course, from his fecking “Freedom From Indoctrination” lectern, he’s declared a war on “woke” – books, schools, information itself – in a feverish crusade against public education. He began with the uber-vague “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which prohibits lessons that may make students feel “discomfort” about icky things like genocide, slavery or homophobia. That’s led to fearful, furious chaos in schools where bigoted parents and activists have sought to ban astaggering list of good books, most dealing with race and gender, and teachers have tried to “play Whac-A-Mole” with the insanity. The state has banned lessons on The 1619 Project focusing on the consequences of slavery, and on high-school AP African-American History that “lacks educational value” and violates state law by considering slavery, reparations, BLM etc. As DeSantis puts it, “I figured, ‘Yeah, they may be doing CRT,’” alaw school subject not taught in public schools, though he wants to allow parents to sue for teaching it anyway. “We wanna do history – that’s what our standards for Black history are,” he said. “It’s just cut and dried history.” Actually, it’s so cut and dried the state also rejected 41% of K-12 math books for “indoctrination,” “prohibited topics” or “exposure to dangerous and divisive concepts,” like CRT.
In Florida, a Disney movie about Ruby Bridges was removed from one county’s schools after a parent complained it taught their kid white people hate Black people. A textbook company deleted race – WTF – from the Rosa Parks story, changing the fact “African Americans had to give up their seats on the bus” to “She was told to move to a different seat”; a lesson on segregation about laws “for African American men” became “men of certain groups.” In July, the state approved using material from PragerU Kids, a right-wing company fighting “leftism” in education that boasts, “We are in the mind-changing business.” Cartoon videos offer “lessons in collective forgetting” as modern kids Leo & Layla meet Christopher Columbus – slavery was “no big deal” and “better than being killed” – Booker Washington – yeah slavery bad but “I am still so proud and thankful to be an American” and “you have nothing to be sorry about” – Frederick Douglass – be patient and compromise – and a deracinated MLK: “My Christian faith directs me to love my neighbors, even when they act in ways I don’t like.” Leo and Layla also learn that challenging belief in climate change or the need for renewable energy “takes courage” and is just like fighting Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising (except for the mass executions).
Last week, all the 9-10 year-old black kids at Bunnell elementary school were pulled from class to attend an assembly where a slide show labeled them “The Problem” of “AA” (Black) students needing to improve their standardized test scores; they were told if they did they could get a free meal from McDonald’s, and if they don’t they could die or land in jail. Parents were not happy: “They segregated our kids in 2023?!” The (presumably white) principal, now on paid leave, still didn’t get it; she apologized for not informing parents about the event”against our long-held belief this must be a team effort.” Also, a new review of state process reveals the blindingly stupid, racist, sanitized, self-serving “thinking” by Moms-For-Liberty-esque “experts” behind the ban on African-American history that found it “unsuitable for Florida students”: Materials on slaves “may lead to a viewpoint of an ‘oppressor vs. oppressed’ based solely on race,” the 1960s Black is Beautiful could “teach that promoting multiculturalism and ethnic studies are current worthy objectives,” which “tends to divide (not) unify Americans,” to say “no slaves or their descendants accumulated any wealth” may promote critical race theory, “presents one side of this issue and does not offer any opposing viewpoints.”
Mind-bogglingly, they share the right’s unholy obsession with citing the “benefits” of slavery and the opportunities for wholly disenfranchised people routinely beaten, whipped, raped, ripped from their families and murdered to game the loathsome system. “This course really gives students an opportunity to go deep,” chirped one “education” official…It refutes the notion that there’s one side against another…Really, there are multiple sides.” Retorts one professor still inhabiting Planet Earth, “There is no other perspective on slavery other than it was brutal.” To reiterate: Under the law of every slave state, including Florida, no slave could own anything – not the clothes on their back or the shoes on their feet. They were property, sold like a piece of livestock, as were, often, their children. Still, at a news conference noting that, “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” – a claim proven to be utter bullshit – DeSantis whitesplained, “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” even if their kids had been sold. Activist and writer David Mura: “We still have not given up the stories Whiteness tells itself.”
Sorry. We’re going on at length to reiterate the thorny facts: The right is racist and deeply hypocritical, a foundational tool for the hubris of whiteness. In their view, the psychology of the abuser, “The problem is not that white America has been abusing Black America throughout our history, (but) that Black Americans keep remembering this history and telling it to white people – which somehow victimizes white people.” Anything they disagree with is indoctrination or un-American, “unless Whiteness approves it.” (No wonder slaves were forbidden to read or write, and Black people don’t feel safe there.) Despite their whiteness, there are consequences to their actions, their words matter, there is cause and effect in the universe, still, even hundreds of years on from King’s slaves “seared in the flames of withering injustice,” and 60 years on from his vow to end “the long night of their captivity.” Not yet, not with evil cretins like DeSantis in power, with his abuses, his silencing of history, his Nazis running free, the racist rhetoric he spews he’s not yet been held accountable for – “the words that come out of (his) mouth,” says state Rep. Angie Nixon, “time and time again.” DeSantis and the GOP “are doing nothing except hurting us,” she says through angry tears. “This man means us no good.”
And so to guns. In April, DeSantis signed into law behind closed doors a concealed carry bill that allows anyone to carry a gun without a permit, background check or training, until now all required. Despite polls finding 77% of Florida voters, including 62% of Republicans, oppose permitless carry, he defended the move at a gun store: “You don’t need a permission slip from the government (to) exercise your constitutional rights.” The law went into effect July 1. On Aug. 26, a young white supremacisr opened fire inside a Dollar General in Jacksonville, killing three Black people: Anolt “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19; Jerrald De’Shaun Gallion, 29; and Angela Michelle Carr, 52. The shooter. Ryan Palmeter, 21, wore body armor, had swastikas emblazoned on his (yet again) AR-15 assault rifle, also had a Glock handgun, and had bought both guns legally. He evidently went first to the nearby, historically black Edward Waters University, but couldn’t get in. Sheriff T.K. Waters said Palmeter, a registered Republican who killed himself, left behind “manifestos” saying he “hated Black people.” The DOJ is investigating the killings as a hate crime and “act of racially motivated violent extremism.” Waters is considerably, refreshingly more blunt: “The manifestos made it clear – he wanted to kill niggers.”
Actions have consequences, there is cause and effect, words matter. Wayne Washington on “a white man with hate in his heart and a weapon of war at his fingertips”: “Now, the white men who hunt Black people lay out their aims in rambling manifestos…They aren’t ashamed. And why should they be? After all, they are answering a call.” He adds, “In his dying moments (the shooter) might have comforted himself with the certainty that others will follow in his footsteps. It’s only a matter of time.” On Sunday, black residents held a vigil for the victims. DeSantis, trailing his ugly history, came and was booed and heckled so loudy – “You are not welcome here!” “Your policies caused this!”- he stopped trying to speak; the photo of a scowling Angie Nixon, wrote one mourner, “is all of us.” Many cited DeSantis’ record – maps, Nazis, vindictiveness – to note, “This type of hatred isn’t random.” DeSantis intoned, straight-faced, “We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race,” and pledged more money for security at Edward Waters, which he’s long declined to fund. Nixon scoffed at the obscenely too-little-too-late “Band-Aid”; for years, she and other pols “told him what his rhetoric was going to do, and that is exactly what transpired.” She also warned of his hope to use Florida as a dystopian model for the country: “America, you are in danger, girl…When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
In a sign of enduring hope and respect, many held photos of MLK at the 60th commemoration of the March on Washington Photo by Kevin Dietsch /Getty Images