Black History Could Be 'Erased' by Laws Like Florida's Stop WOKE Act, Professor Fighting to Overturn It Says

Dr. Marvin Dunn
Dr. Marvin Dunn

Dr. Marvin Dunn was stunned to learn that children needed signed permission slips to listen to him speak about his family's experience during the Jim Crow era. He is also among the educators engaged in a fight against Florida's Stop WOKE Act.

Dr. Marvin Dunn is a retired naval officer and professor emeritus at Florida International University who has spent his life fighting for civil rights and social justice. The esteemed educator is a celebrated author, documentarian and public speaker who has seen a lot in his 83 years. And so when he was asked to give a lecture about what his family and other Black Americans faced during the Jim Crow era in the South to an assembly at a Miami-Dade middle school during Black History Month, he agreed.

What happened next shocked the veteran.

“The topic that I decided to talk about was Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to being accepted to speak, I had to write down what I was going to talk about and some details,” he tells Inside Edition Digital. “That was submitted, I would assume, to the school principal, and I was allowed to then come to the school. But the students who attended my speech, my lecture, had to have a slip signed by parents that allowed them to attend the talk.”

The professor went on to give the talk at the middle school, but says he is still stunned by the hurdles that needed to be cleared to make it possible for students there to hear him speak about the Black experience in America. 

“I'm 83 years old. I spent seven years defending my country as a naval officer,” he says. “I never thought that it would come to this. I thought that we were the exceptional country, but I'm saying now, as I look back over 80 decades, that we're just as vulnerable to dictators as everybody else on the planet.”

Dr. Dunn as a Naval Officer in 1966 - Dr. Marvin Dunn

Dunn is among the many advocates and educators who say the true history of the United States is at risk of fading into obscurity as lawmakers make it that much more difficult to teach about the experiences of minorities, especially Black Americans, and the ramifications felt as a result of decisions made by past leaders.

In Florida, the Individual Freedom Act, commonly known as the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, or the Stop WOKE Act, is intended to prevent teachings and mandatory workplace activities that suggest a person has privilege or has faced oppression due to their race, color, sex or national origin. Signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, it gives "businesses, employees, children and families tools to fight back against woke indoctrination," the republican lawmaker said at the time. It also limits what can be taught in schools about race and racism, experts say.  

“We're talking about the erasure of African Americans from society under this guise of a racial colorblind society,” Leah Watson, a senior staff attorney in the racial justice program at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), tells Inside Edition Digital. "Governor DeSantis has announced (a) ‘war on woke.’ As part of his ‘war on woke,’ he's introduced a number of measures supported by the Florida legislature to erase discussion of race and racism, sex and sexism from schools and workplaces in Florida. The issue with the Stop WOKE Act is that it prohibits discussion of concepts from the perspective that the government doesn't like."

And as a result, Watson says, Black people are being sent the message "they can be erased and that their history will be erased.”

Educators in Florida are also having to contend with so-called "parental rights" laws that give guardians more say over what children learn in the state's public classrooms. The law "prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and prohibits instruction that is not age appropriate for students and requires school districts to adopt procedures for notifying parents if there is a change in services from the school regarding a child’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being," DeSantis' office said in 2022.

As a result, in September 2022, the Florida Department of Education updated its guidance for field trips, extracurricular activities and supplemental programs to require activities to “be consistent with the Parental Bill of Rights” and to require school districts to fully inform parents of the details of field trips, extracurricular activities and supplemental programs.

Since 1994, Florida has required that lessons on Black history be taught, but the Stop WOKE Act and Parental Bill of Rights has seemed to take the wind out of such mandates, critics say. 

“This is only happening around Black history presentations in office. I haven't heard anybody being required to have a permission slip for Hispanic week events or for Holocaust recognition. This has exploded over Black history,” Dunn says.

Dunn Family in 1949 - Dr. Marvin Dunn

Mayade Ersoff, the middle school social studies teacher who invited Dunn to speak to students, says she found it "absurd," "nonsensical" and "educationally unsound" to require children have permission slips signed before being allowed to attend the lecture.

“It's unfair to pick and choose what students are going to learn or not,” she says.

The school at which Dunn spoke did not respond to Inside Edition Digital's request for comment. 

Another event at a school in the Miami-Dade school district that required parental permission gained national attention after a parent posted an image of the consent form on X, formerly known as Twitter.  

"I had to give permission for this or else my child would not participate???" Chuck Walter wrote on X on Feb. 12. The image showed that the event at his child's school, which was to be held in the library, would involve guests such as "fireman/doctor/artist" and asked that parents allow their child to participate in a “Read Aloud,” which was described as an activity where “students will participate & listen to a book written by an African American,” according to the photo of the form posted online.

“I was a bit shocked. This is the first time that I’ve experienced this for school activity. My first reaction was, ‘Let me share this with other parents and other people and get their perspective,'" Walter told CNN. 

The Miami-Dade school district did not respond to Inside Edition Digital's multiple requests for comment. In a statement to CNN, the district acknowledged that the “description of the event may have caused confusion” among some parents, and said it would emphasize the importance of clarity when describing events moving forward. "However, in compliance with State Law, permission slips were sent home because guest speakers would participate during a school-authorized education-related activity,” the district said.

DeSantis in early February accused schools of “virtue signaling” and critics of “trying to create phony narratives.”

At a school board meeting in early February, John D. Pace III, deputy superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said “schools do not require permission slips for the instruction of African American history,” but that forms should be used when "there is an activity outside of the curriculum or when a guest presents at school,” CNN reported.  

“Miami-Dade public schools fully supports and provides instruction in African American history throughout the school year which is a requirement by the state of Florida,” Pace said.

Pace did not respond to Inside Edition Digital's request for comment. 

The Miami-Dade school district also addressed the permission slip controversy. “The overarching goal of social studies instruction is to prepare students to be knowledgeable, informed, and active citizens in an increasingly diverse community and nation and interdependent world,” the district said in a statement posted on its website. “Social Studies programs exist to promote civic competence and ensure that the values and ideals that have shaped our democratic republic continue to be instilled in our youth. Miami-Dade County Public Schools fully supports the teaching of African American history, which is required by the State of Florida, throughout the school year. Our schools do not need permission slips to teach African American history."

Dunn pushed back against Pace's defense of the Florida school system, telling Inside Edition Digital, "that is exactly what the Deputy Superintendent is supposed to say. He works for the system. The system is trying to defend itself against impossible laws that they're being required to enforce.

Dunn at New College of Florida - Dr. Marvin Dunn

"In fact, some of the things that the state requires about Black history to be taught are totally not true," he says.

He also took to task the Miami-Dade county school district. “We are in our own bubble here,” Dunn says. “This is what the Nazis did. This is what right-wing autocratic governments do. They know the need to first take control of the schools, take control of the minds of young people, and it doesn't take much to activate a few right-wing parents to insert themselves into a school and wreak havoc, which is what's happening in Florida. School districts don't know what to do about these new permission slips. There's confusion everywhere.”

Watson, the ACLU attorney, says the Stop WOKE Act requires that schools continue to teach African American history, but "the instruction can only come from the perspective that has been authorized by the Florida State governor and legislature. While requiring instruction on African American history, you can only do it from a so-called patriotic perspective," she says. "And the State of Florida has shown that they're willing to manipulate the facts and to compromise accuracy or truth in order to maintain what they deemed to be a patriotic perspective.”

Ersoff says she began working on bringing Dunn to her school in November for Black History Month assembly in February. The teacher says she had to fill out “stacks of paperwork,” in which she explained in detail why he would be speaking and what he would be speaking out. Dunn also needed to write a summary on what he would say, including detailed bullet points, Ersoff says.

“That whole idea that I even had to ask him, I was so embarrassed and disgusted,” she says.

After those forms were filled out, they went to the principal and then to the district for various approvals, she says. Following district approval, permission slips needed to be sent to parents and or guardians of the children intended to hear Dunn speak.

“I have never, in my 28 years of teaching, seen anything like this before,” Ersoff says.

The permission slips, viewed by Inside Edition Digital, required parental signatures included fields that also required their home addresses and contact information. Almost all parents signed the permission slips, Ersoff says. Those who didn't either forgot to or had a conflict that prevented their child from attending, she says, noting that there didn't appear to be any protest to Dunn speaking at the school.   

“I wanted (Dunn) to share his life experiences with facing the horrible discrimination and segregation that he and his family had to live through in the state of Florida,” she says. “They need to understand, as students, that this was real, and it's still real. So the best way to learn is by listening to someone so wise, and someone who experienced everything and what it was like. How did he feel? How'd his family feel? What did his dad do when the KKK came through the town, to Miami? So this is real history. You can't pick and choose what feels good to your ears. That is not reality."

But such selectivity could become the reality in some instances, which makes Dunn "angry" and "a little sad, frankly." 

“I didn't think that education in our country and our state would come to this,” he says. “I have a high school named for me. I don't know how to tell them what to do about this. I'm not even sure I can go down to my own named high school and give a speech without getting somebody in trouble."

Dr. Dunn at Graduation - Dr. Marvin Dunn

Watson says that teachers in Florida are also operating in a state of fear and confusion. 

"It is functionally very hard for teachers to understand how they can teach what is required of them while falling in line and complying with the requirements of the Stop Woke Act, when the Stop Woke Act is requiring a perspective that is inaccurate," she says. "And that tension there between requiring teachers to teach something and also penalizing them if it isn't done exactly how the state wants.

"The penalties are very harsh,” she continues. "Even just taking a lens beyond Florida, in many states, you can lose your teaching license for the state. There have been measures introduced in some places across the country to have criminal penalties. It's hard to underestimate the seriousness of the penalties and the culture right now of attacking teachers, monitoring teachers, intimidating teachers. So, to that, I just think it's inconsistent."

It's a reality Dunn says he refuses to accept. “This is really not America," he says. “This state is at war with education."

He is among the Florida educators who in 2023 filed a lawsuit to challenge the legality of the Stop WOKE Act. The plaintiffs in the Pernell v. Lamb lawsuit say the Stop WOKE Act violates the First and 14th Amendments because it imposes unconstitutionally vague viewpoint-based restrictions on educators and students, as well as violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was enacted with the intent to discriminate against Black educators and students. 

“He is retired and he's still doing so much work and such a recognized leader in his field that the erasure is really there. I think he also just demonstrates the breadth of the law,” Watson says.

Watson, who is a former teacher herself and is representing plaintiffs including Dunn in Pernell v. Lamb in what she calls the ACLU's "fight against classroom censorship," says “you don't eliminate racism by defining it away or denying its existence or current manifestations.”

“Instead of recognizing and grappling with the fact that our country, the founders of our country incorporated racism in the form of slavery in the founding of this country, it was founded by people who own enslaved people," she says. "Instead, the State of Florida has chosen to teach that those founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence with the freedom of enslaved people in mind. And that's just not the case."

The parties in Pernell v. Lamb are due back in court for an oral argument the first week in June, Watson says. 

And in the meantime, there are ways to push back against such laws outside of litigation as well, Watson says, urging participation in government at the lowest levels, such as school board meetings. 

Ersoff says that teachers especially need to make their voices heard. “What are you afraid of? That you are going to lose your job? They can’t find warm bodies to be teachers in this state,” she says. “The more you take away, the more I push forward. I've always been like that. This is educational justice, and you can't take away the freedom and the right of a human being to learn what they're supposed to be learning. History is our life. This is our Black History. You can't go back in time like DeSantis wants to pick and choose.”

And the most important tool to use against censorship, Dunn says, is one's right to vote.

“The power is in the vote, not just for people who are Black, but for those who agree with the same goals that we're all trying to seek, which is more freedom and more harmony in our society. Vote,” he says. "I'm not pessimistic about our country. I think that this is something that it has its moment with us, but we're going to rise above this… Our country's greater than this.”

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