When he was studying at Morgan State, Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume joined Black students around the country during the civil rights movement in the push to see their own history taught in the classroom.
Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, civil rights leaders were faced with the question: “Where do we go from here?” he recalled.
Academics, activists and students of the day knew they needed to ensure the generation coming behind them would grow up with an understanding of their own history, and fought for the development of courses in African American studies
Those classes became such a focal point between the ’60s and ’70s, that by the mid-’80s, many thought the days of narrowing or excluding Black history were behind them, Mfume said.
“So the fact that we are here now in 2023, not only facing the same challenge in a different way, where people want to use an eraser and take it off of the board, as if it did not exist, is extremely appalling to those of us who fought to do just the opposite,” Mfume said.
In the face of conservative efforts to quash a new AP African American studies course and efforts to push back on historical narratives on the African American experience like “The 1619 Project,” Mfume has introduced a bill that, if passed, would create a federal commission pinpointing significant moments in Black history could it make it tougher for those events to be excluded from school curricula.
Both Mfume and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin presented legislation for the National Council on African American History and Culture Act of 2023 on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. A little over a month later, it has more than 50 co-sponsors and endorsement of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture.
Mfume said he expects another 50 by the end of spring. However, none of the current co-sponsors are Republicans, who control the House.
The legislation would create a council of 12 presidential appointees to advise the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) on promoting Black voices, ensuring that Black history and culture is recognized in schools, providing resources to preserve Black history, and recommending national policies that would generate improved public understanding of African American history and culture.
According to a subsection of the bill, the president would select candidates based on the views of scholars, professional practitioners in the humanities, and the public district without regard to their race, creed, gender or disability
“The bill establishes a precedent, which is absent right now. And that precedent is protection of historical facts and the history of African Americans,” Mfume said.
NEH awards grants for proposals to cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television and radio, and individual scholars. Mfume said the organization would produce an annual report on its efforts to preserve the teaching of Black history.
School courses on African American history have become political footballs in recent months, following the release of a new Advanced Placement African American studies course currently being piloted across the country.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and the Florida Department of Education attacked some of the topics being covered in the course, including what’s often referred to as critical race theory, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“This is not some sort of strange bill from another planet. It’s the proper and fitting way to go about doing something like this. But I think what’s happening on the Republican side, is that their leadership right now has refused to embrace the efforts to protect this history as they should, in my opinion,” Mfume said. “And so members on the Republican side, who really understand this effort, and who can appreciate it, are just sort of standing in place and waiting to see what signal the leadership gives.”
The AP course’s official framework has since been revised. Supporters of Black history education claim that texts by scholars focusing on critical race theory have been removed from the course and that essential topics were left out. According to a statement from the College Board, however, no such changes were made.
“We must also clarify that no Black scholars or authors have been removed from the course. In fact, contemporary scholars and authors are never mandated in any AP framework,” the College Board said in a Feb. 8 letter to the Florida Department of Education.
The College Board also wrote that no topics were removed because “they lacked educational value.”
In an updated statement on Feb. 11, the College Board said it should have been more clear about the framework and topics of the course, differentiated between the final curriculum and the early framework, and denounced the Florida Department of Education’s “slander” of the course.
The AP course is being piloted in Maryland at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, part of Baltimore City Public Schools and one of only 60 schools in the country participating in the pilot program during the 2022-2023 school year.
All of history is important for preservation, Mfume reiterated. The only disservice to students is being selective in what gets passed down and what isn’t, he said.
“All of American history is important, we don’t want to eliminate any part of American history, whether it has to do with Black people or not, because you really don’t understand where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been,” Mfume said.
Even if the legislation is unsuccessful, Mfume said he is encouraged by today’s students, who aren’t taking these rollbacks sitting down.
“It’s amazing because it’s developed on its own within those students,” he said. “And so this pushback against this kind of false teaching is something that is heartening.”
Capital News Service reporter Yesenia Montenegro contributed to this story.