By Diane Roberts
Despite all those Ohioans and Michiganders moving to The Villages or Margaritaville or other white folks’ play pens, despite the cosmopolitan sheen of the coastal cities and the impossibility of getting decent grits in Miami, when it comes to race, Florida is a Deep South state.
Florida’s plantations were worked by thousands of enslaved people; Florida’s per capita lynching rate was the highest in the South; and from the 1920s to the 1960s we experienced more than our fair share of racist violence.
There was a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, when it looked like we might drag ourselves out of the 19th century.
For a couple of decades, the state was seen as forward-thinking. We had the nation’s strongest open-government statutes. We expanded and improved education and we embraced diversity.
These days, Florida is going backwards. Our government is increasingly secretive, increasingly authoritarian, and increasingly racist.
The state is channeling Alabama c. 1965.
We even have our own George Wallace.
Remember when Ron DeSantis took office in 2019? Despite those idiotic “Build the Wall” campaign ads, he didn’t seem to be a Trump-style racist. One of his first acts as governor was to pardon the Groveland Four, the Black men who’d been falsely accused of rape in 1949.
Those of us who didn’t vote for him felt hopeful: Maybe this guy would acknowledge our sad history and move us toward a more equitable society.
But he didn’t. And he isn’t. Maybe the Napoleonically ambitious DeSantis decided white nationalism was his ticket to the Republican presidential nomination.
Or maybe he was always like that.
In the 1950s, George Wallace, then a circuit judge, gained a reputation for being a moderate, respectful to Black lawyers in his court, even granting probation to some Black people convicted of crimes.
In 1958, he ran for governor but lost to a candidate backed by the KKK. (He would later serve four terms as governor of Alabama.)
After that, Wallace vowed never to be, as he famously said, “outni****ed” again. He surrounded himself with rabid racists connected to the violent thugs who attacked singer Nat King Cole when he appeared in Birmingham and beat up civil rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
Anticipating Donald Trump’s attack on Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers,” Wallace warned that Black men wanted nothing more than to rape white women and kill white men.
DeSantis’ racism is less overt but almost as damaging. Black people in Wallace’s Alabama pretty much couldn’t vote; here in Florida, DeSantis’ policies have undermined Black representation: He forced the Legislature to destroy two majority Black congressional districts, redrawing them to favor whites.
With his new Elections Police intimidating and laws restricting access to the ballot, he’s made it harder to vote.
Wallace embraced Confederate battle flags; DeSantis tries to keep just enough distance from that kind of imagery to give him plausible deniability.
When small groups of supporters with swastika flags and “DeSantis Country” posters show up, as they have in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville, the governor insists it’s nothing to do with him.
When his political shop put out a video using Nazi imagery, they first denied they made it then admitted they had and fired some staffers.
DeSantis refused to take responsibility, though he emits what you can’t even call a dog whistle. It’s more like an air raid siren.
He has promised that, as president, he’ll overturn the Biden administration’s removal of military bases’ Confederate names.
Vehicle for racism
Nevertheless, DeSantis’ White House run seems to be faltering. Most people don’t want to make America Florida, any more than in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976, when George Wallace ran for president, they wanted to make America Alabama.
Wallace did, however, win the 1972 Florida Democratic primary. It is unclear that DeSantis can do the same in 2024.
Both DeSantis and Wallace used education as a vehicle for racism.
In 1963, Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door,” trying to block Black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Integration, Wallace said, would lead to intermarriage, venereal disease, and “mongrelization.”
DeSantis also stood in the schoolhouse door, in a legislative sense, with his “anti-woke” laws mandating teachers present a warped, frequently inaccurate, version of American history — especially the history of slavery.
They didn’t worry about that in 1960s Alabama: Most textbooks still romanticized the Civil War and played down slavery.
Wallace insisted he improved education in his state. In a 1964 letter to a woman in Michigan, he rejected charges of racism, boasting that he’d raised Black teachers’ salaries and “served on the Board of Trustees of Tuskegee Institute, one of the finest Negro Institutions in America.”
The only problem in Alabama, he said, was those “outside agitators.”
Ron DeSantis might call outside agitators “woke” teachers, Marxist professors, and Drag Queen activists, instead — people who use the 21st century schoolhouse to “indoctrinate” innocent Florida children who must never feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” learning about systemic racism.
We now have a better understanding of how the slave trade and the plantation economy shaped the United States. Yet DeSantis’ education officials are hell-bent on suppressing it, from “The 1619 Project” to an AP African American History course which, according to the state evaluators who ended up rejecting the course, presented slavery in a way that “may lead to a viewpoint of an ‘oppressor vs. oppressed’ based solely on race or ethnicity.”
In fact, there was an oppressor (those who enslaved fellow human beings) and an oppressed (the enslaved), and it was based on race.
Florida’s AP course reviewers also complained it never presented “the other side” of slavery, by which I suppose they mean the happy mammies and cotton field banjo picking and job training — the version of history George Wallace favored.
Wallace’s Alabama was a place of state-sponsored terror against Black citizens, where the police beat and tortured people demanding basic human rights.
Ron DeSantis’ Florida has not — not yet — got to that level of institutionally-sanctioned violence. But he has created a Florida in which people of color must fear both his government and freelance bigots like that white supremacist who murdered three people in Jacksonville “based solely” on their race.
It remains to be seen whether DeSantis’ campaign of anger, bigotry, and lies will win him enough Republican votes to contend for the White House.
George Wallace, of course, never made it to Washington. But though he lost his bid for the presidency, he may have saved his soul.
Wallace barely survived an assassination attempt in 1972: A bullet lodged in his spine left him paralyzed.
One Sunday in 1979, congregants at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church Martin Luther King, Jr. once pastored, were surprised to see Gov. Wallace rolling up the aisle in his wheelchair. Over the years he had come to regret his past politics and come to understand something of the pain Black people endured in America.
“I know I contributed to that pain,” he said, “and I can only ask your forgiveness.”
It’s hard to imagine Ron DeSantis coming to such a moment of grace. But there’s always hope.
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books.