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Freedom to learn campaign comes to New Orleans

The Freedom to Learn National Day of Action, a campaign initiated by the African American Policy Forum

By C.C. Campbell-Rock Louisiana Weekly Contributing Writer

On May 3, top civil rights leaders and university administrators appeared at a media briefing in New Orleans on the first Freedom to Learn Day of Action. They spoke about the new sustainable campaign to combat recent attacks on Black history and book bans written by award-winning Black authors during a Leadership Conference led by NUL President and CEO Marc H. Morial.

“The Freedom to Learn National Day of Action, a campaign initiated by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), is an uprising against the so-called ‘War on Wokeness’ that is warping the teaching of American history, banning books from schools and libraries, and dismantling efforts to remedy systemic racial inequities,” according to a press statement.

Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia Law School, directs the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and co-founded the African American Policy Forum, a think tank based on campus. She is a constant target of right-wing extremists and politicians who decry her work as a scholar of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.

“This is just the beginning of what is going to be a long and loud effort, across the nation, to say no to those states, politicians, to anyone anywhere that wants to suppress our history, Already, there have been almost 1,000 proposals to either ban books or to restrict, limit, or alter the teaching of essential components of Black history,” said Morial, who led the Leadership Conference at the Monteleone Hotel.

The proposals are from state legislators, governors, city council and county council ordinances, library and school boards, and right-wing think tank organizations. “We say no to voter suppression and history suppression,” Morial said to applause.

Xavier University President Dr. C. Reynolds Verret, Barbara R. Arnwine, president and founder of Transformative Justice Coalition, Stephanie Rogers, president of Institutional Advancement at Dillard University, and Judy Reese Morse, president and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana, explained the urgency of responding to the attempt to “erase” Black Americans’ history and contributions from classrooms.

During the conference, 150 rallies were held nationwide on campuses, at school boards, and at the College Board, where members folded to pressure from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ calls for altering the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American History Curriculum.

One target of the day of action was the College Board, which scholars involved in organizing the day of action accused of “appeasing right-wing extremists at a time when a record number of books across the country are being targeted for censorship,” according to the AAPF.

“Educators, civil rights leaders rallied in front of the College Board headquarters in Washington, D.C., and New York to support ‘freedom to learn and protest against legislative efforts to restrict how teachers can discuss race and address racism, and attempts across the country to ban books from classrooms and school libraries,” Education Week reported.

Teach-ins at university campuses, community book drives, and read-aloud of banned books on social media were also conducted.

The National Urban League’s 2023 State of Black America® report, “Democracy in Peril: Confronting the Threat Within,” lists 21 states that have enacted measures that censor the honest examination of racism and race in American society, and the College Board has excised crucial material from its AP African American Studies curriculum in response.

Louisiana’s Urban League President and CEO Judy Reese Morse spoke about Republican lawmakers’ efforts to remove diversity, equity, and inclusion in departments and agencies within higher education institutions.

“There’s a Senate Bill, if passed, will allow government officials – notice I said government officials, not education officials – to review textbooks and other instructional materials which the state Department of Education does not review. The Urban League will have a team at the state capitol when this bill is heard, urging them to drop this legislation,” Morse said.

“We must remain vigilant in the fight against any legislation that would look to erase history or jeopardize the education of our children by censoring what is being taught by trained educators in classrooms.”

Xavier University President Dr. C. Reynolds Verret is also a NUL Board member. Verret said, “Our purpose at Xavier and other universities around the country is to educate great minds; the only way we educate great minds is by giving them the truth and letting them wrestle with all the complex things, or ideas, and coming to a consensus. And that is protected because of the constitution’s Freedom of speech.”

Dr. Verret stressed the importance of truth and academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought. “Only in this way can we educate people. And no one in here, in this nation, can restrict what is taught, what people are educated in, and how we discuss the truth,” he said.

“There are places in this world where the despots, the leaders, whoever they are, say what can be spoken and what cannot be spoken, of religions, thoughts, even sexual identities can be hauled out. There are places where histories are forbidden. So, this conversation and this struggle are not even just for Black kids, but for Democracy,” the Haitian-born educator explained.

At the conference, leaders called on the College Board to restore the AP African American Studies curriculum and to commit to making the course available online to students who live in states in which politicians have enacted bans on books, knowledge, and ideas contained in the original curriculum that would prevent the course from being taught in those states.

The leaders also call for an independent investigation into how outside political forces corrupted the course development process and for holding all implicated College Board officials accountable.

Morial promised to put the total weight of the Urban League movement behind the Freedom to Learn Campaign.

Throughout the conference, covering up the “truth” emerged as the impetus for the Freedom to Learn Day of Action. The AAPF’s #TruthBeTold Campaign offers a video that explains racism and provides a Critical Race Theory and Anti-Racism toolkit that explains how the attack on Critical Race Theory and Anti-Racism is a threat to Democracy.

The forerunner to the “Freedom to Learn Day of Action” in 2023 was the “From Freedom Riders to Freedom Readers: The Books Unbanned Tour.”

In October 2022, the AAPF partnered with the Transformative Justice Coalition (TJC) on a bus tour to mobilize “10 Million More Black Voters” to fight back against book bans nationwide with the Books Unbanned Tour.

Barbara R. Arnwine of the Transformative Justice Coalition is known for her work as the former director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Arnwine and Morial litigated many civil rights cases together. When she led the Lawyers Committee (currently led by Attorney Damon Hewitt, a New Orleans native), Arwine participated in the landmark Chisom Case that resulted in the first Black jurists on the Louisiana State Supreme Court, the first and only Black and female Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson.

“I’m appalled, disgusted, disturbed by this whole movement to not only ban books by our most illustrative scholars but to ban Black studies, Black history, Black culture when this nation is built on all that?” Arnwine said emphatically. “All of our sweat, all our genius, all of our creativity. How dare they?”

She expressed her gratitude that the NUL and other organizations like the African American Policy Forum led by Dr. Crenshaw and the Transformative Justice Coalition have united to ensure this country lives up to “our” ideals.

“As they see demographic change, as they see their children becoming more progressive and anti-racist, they’re saying, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We want to continue a system of white political dominance.’ And the only way they can have that economic, social and political dominance is by suppressing and getting rid of and stopping any way they can not only the teaching of equity, diversity, and inclusion but stop from coming to life that which is inevitable – that is a truly multiracial democracy. How dare you ban 28 of our best scholars. We’re not going,” Arwine adds.

“And we will say to Louisiana, you won’t be part of that. From June Nineteenth and 24th, we will be in Florida. We will roll through Florida’s 15 cities and say to DeSantis and The New York Times, ‘This is not normal. And we’ll stay woke, no matter what you do. 2024 is coming, and we’re ready.”

“In a nation where the Bill of Rights talks about the Freedom of speech, press, expression, and assembly. How can we in 2023 be silent, do nothing, say nothing, or accommodate one millimeter to an effort to suppress the teaching of our history and the truth about this nation?” Morial adds.

“When you learn history, you learn about things that make you proud, upset you, tragedies of humanity, oppression, and pain; you learn about bricks and bouquets. It’s called the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Morial continues.

“Our children have a right to be taught the truth in our nation’s classrooms. We must leave a legacy that when we were faced with an effort to turn the clock backward, we stood up. We didn’t hesitate. We took a stand.”

This article originally published in the May 15, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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