In June 1963, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in a symbolic protest to integration. In response, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered Wallace to step aside. He eventually did, but the message was clear: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” It made Wallace a national symbol and five years later he ran for president and got 13% of the vote.
Wallace’s stand was a pre-arranged stunt, but I’m reminded of it when I see the stand that Gov. DeSantis of Florida is taking against school districts requiring students and staff to wear masks to prevent the further spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19.
Florida’s Board of Education said on Friday that two school districts would lose some state funding if they did not reverse mask mandates within two days, a move that ignored President Biden’s vow to take action against governors opposing mandatory masking.
A sixth school district on Friday defied a masking mandate ban imposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), and after the board’s threats were made public, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the Biden administration would “assist any district facing repercussions” for imposing mask mandates recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is deeply troubling to see state leaders putting politics ahead of the health and safety of our students, and that instead of supporting our educators for doing the right thing, state leaders are trying to punish them,” Cardona said in a statement.
He also said in an interview Friday with WLRN that the civil rights division of the U.S. Education Department will investigate complaints from Floridians who say that Gov. Ron DeSantis’s masking ban prevents access to safe schools.
Biden announced on Wednesday that he had ordered Cardona to take action against governors who have banned mask mandates. The Education Department has also sent letters to DeSantis (R) and the governors of Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah, saying that bans on school masking mandates may violate federal law and that the department will be reviewing their actions.
DeSantis has been adamant that school districts allow parents to decide whether their children should wear masks in school, issuing a July 30 executive order to that effect.
But the school districts in Alachua and Broward counties went ahead with mandates — allowing only medical exemptions and not parental opt-outs — as cases of the delta variant of the novel coronavirus skyrocketed in the state.
On Wednesday, three districts joined them: Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest in the country; Hillsborough County, the eighth largest; and Palm Beach County, the 10th largest.
In the case of Gov. Wallace, he was trying to preserve the ways of Jim Crow and the remnants of the Confederacy. He also knew that he was tapping into a core of a political base that seethed with resentment at the federal government for forcing them to abide by the rule of law and the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education. In both cases, the governor of a Southern state was using the public schools and the students as pawns in their game to garner national attention, rail against “outside agitators,” and attract supporters for political gain.
The difference between Alabama in 1963 and Florida in 2021 is that civil rights marchers risked their lives on the streets of Selma and Birmingham by defying the state. Today the students, teachers, and staff risk their lives and well-being by complying with the orders of the state.