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American history turned upside down — and that’s the point

Republican politicians erase and replace so they can divide and conquer

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a “Freedom Summer” in his state, using a name that powerfully resonates in American history, Curtis writes.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a “Freedom Summer” in his state, using a name that powerfully resonates in American history, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It turns out Nikki Haley stumbling over the cause of the Civil War was not a one-off.

The topsy-turvy twisting of American history, as it applies to Black Americans — their resilience and contributions despite injustice — is a tactic, a well-planned cynical one. And recent perpetrators don’t even have the decency to make a half-hearted attempt at backtracking, as Haley eventually and reluctantly managed to do after being called out on her amnesia about slavery.

Now politicians are standing proudly as they try to co-opt the language and history of the Civil Rights movement, which fought for equal rights for all and forced America to take a step toward living up to its ideals.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is a master, presenting himself as a billionaire victim and inviting his supporters to follow. But dishonest is too mild a word for politicians when they do everything but break into a chorus of “We Shall Overcome” to sideline the legacy of Americans who truly had to.

In the Florida of Gov. Ron DeSantis, it was not a surprise when the state’s Transportation Department told cities that if they chose to light up their bridges at night, the only acceptable colors would be red, white and blue. The prohibition, set to last between Memorial Day and Labor Day, was widely seen as using an aura of patriotism to preempt the tradition of displaying rainbow colors during June for Pride Month.

But did DeSantis have to label it a part of the state’s “Freedom Summer,” a name that powerfully resonates in American history?

Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, was a 1964 voter registration drive — the brainchild of Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — that brought hundreds of white volunteers to join with African Americans to register Black voters in the state. The intimidation and violence they faced led to international attention, outrage and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

For DeSantis — who has gerrymandered Black voters out of representation, thwarted voters’ efforts to restore voting rights to former felons and fought against having just such history taught in Florida schools — his version of “Freedom Summer” was no doubt intentional.

Staying in Florida, Republican U.S. House member Byron Donalds has been making the rounds defending statements he made at a Philadelphia event designed to attract Black voters to the GOP.

“You see, during Jim Crow, the Black family was together. During Jim Crow, more Black people were not just conservative — Black people have always been conservative-minded — but more Black people voted conservatively,” he said, as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Rather than explain away his comments, Donalds should travel to Mims, Fla., for a lesson in Jim Crow’s effect on Black families in his own state. A cultural center tells of Harry T. and Harriette Moore, teachers whose Civil Rights activism cost them first their jobs, and then their lives, when a bomb exploded under their bedroom. It was Christmas night 1951 and the couple’s 25th anniversary.

When their daughter Evangeline Moore died in 2015 at the age of 85, her Washington Post obituary recounted a last message. “My mother told me from her deathbed that she never wanted me to ever think about hating white people — or anybody else,” Ms. Moore told the Orlando Sentinel in 2009, “because it would make me ugly, and she didn’t want me to be an ugly woman.”

That Donalds is a Black man doesn’t excuse his message. Considering that he owes the possibility of his rise to activists like the Moores, it might make it worse.

Then there’s a North Carolina GOP congressman’s rush to the bottom. Rep. Dan Bishop is making a bid to be his state’s attorney general, running against Jeff Jackson, a Democratic congressman gerrymandered out of any chance to be reelected to his own House seat.

Though he aspires to be the state’s top legal adviser, Bishop has joined fellow Republicans’ disdain for the country’s justice system after it held Donald Trump to account in a New York courtroom, with a jury convicting the former president on 34 felony counts.

Bishop did not stop there, though. “When I say it’s rigged, they don’t go into it as a fair fight,” he said in an interview on Charlotte radio station WBT. “They go into a place where they know the fight is unfair. It’s as bad as it was in Alabama in 1950 if a person happened to be Black in order to get justice. That’s what they did in New York,” he said.

Bishop actually compared a man with a high-priced defense who helped pick a jury in the jurisdiction in which the crimes were charged to a Black man in Alabama in 1950.

There was not much justice for the victim or perpetrator in Alabama in 1950 for Hilliard Brooks Jr., a 22-year-old Black man murdered on Aug. 13 of that year in Montgomery, after he was accused by a white bus driver of “creating a disturbance” for refusing to enter through the back door. He was shot by a white police officer, though no one was ever charged, and left behind a wife and two children.

His story and thousands of others are told at the Legacy Sites in Montgomery, a museum and memorial complex that’s an essential visit for any American, particularly one who would ask the diverse citizens of a Southern state to trust him to interpret and enforce the law fairly.

Now, laws that prohibit the teaching of African American history make sense. It’s so much easier to sell lies if the next generations don’t know the truth.

Bishop and Donalds, DeSantis and Trump know what they’re doing, as do all the politicians who would erase and replace in their bid to divide and conquer. In fact, Bishop was defiant, saying “the people who attack me for saying so can attack all they want.”

Sadly, those attacks he knew were coming might actually help him ingratiate himself, not only with his party’s leader but also with voters who find comfort in playing victim, too.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.