Union League’s honor of Ron DeSantis goes against its own history – The Philadelphia Inquirer


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The Union League of Philadelphia’s decision to award Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with its highest honor over protests and condemnations from the Philly NAACP and others is both deeply ironic and exceptionally fitting. As others have pointed out, it is fitting because the Union League of Philadelphia has always represented wealthy, white men. The league was formed during the Civil War by wealthy Northern elites who realized, like President Abraham Lincoln, they could not win a war for the Union without using Black troops. As Lincoln wrote in 1864, he was “driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element.” The Union League partnered with African American leaders like Octavius Catto and Frederick Douglass to recruit Black soldiers. But African American leaders wanted Black soldiers as a way to secure liberty and citizenship, while wealthy elites in the Union League wanted to use Black troops as cannon fodder. Yet despite its reliance on Black soldiers and Black activists, the Union League of Philadelphia did not admit its first Black member until 1972.“The Union League of Philadelphia has always represented wealthy, white men.”But what is deeply ironic about the award is that DeSantis’ policies restricting the teaching of racism and African American history would likely prevent or make substantially more difficult the teaching of the history of the Union Leagues themselves. While they started as wealthy, white social clubs in the North, as the leagues spread across the South, they became something very different. The Union Leagues of the South were multiracial organizations of poor people that defended the gains of Reconstruction. They educated Black and white voters, trained and nominated Black and white candidates, and organized marches to the polls, often armed, on Election Day. They not only mobilized for Republican candidates, but they fought for economic and racial justice as well. They led boycotts and strikes against racist employers, they defended white and Black leaders from white supremacist attacks, and they fought for justice and against the overcriminalization of Black people.Ultimately, the Union Leagues lost the battle against the white supremacist counterrevolution. As wealthy elites and white supremacists took back control of Southern state governments, they erected the Jim Crow racial caste system in the ashes of Radical Reconstruction, embedding racism into the law and society.Florida’s 2021 anti-critical race theory law, which DeSantis has championed, forbids teaching that “racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” How could you teach the history of the Union Leagues without acknowledging this truth? If racism was not embedded into our society and legal system (founded, in part, by enslavers), why would people — some of whom were in the Union Leagues — have needed to fight for the 14th and 15th Amendments to clarify that Black people are indeed citizens entitled to rights in this country and should also be able to vote? Why would they need to defend those rights against white supremacists?» READ MORE: Where’s the honor in the Union League’s celebration of Ron DeSantis? | EditorialIndeed, although elites like DeSantis claim they are pushing these laws to protect white children from feeling guilty, the reality is that they fear this history might encourage children to feel empowered — both Black and white children. White people, like those working with Black people in the Reconstruction-era Union Leagues across the South, with the capacity to act in solidarity with movements for justice, are dangerous to wealthy elites. Indeed, DeSantis and those supporting him are pushing these restrictions because they don’t want a repeat of the Union Leagues: white and Black people uniting to demand racial justice and a redistribution of wealth and power.Luckily, Philadelphia has no such restrictions on teaching the truth. My lessons, which cover this history, are currently available for all on the Rethinking Schools website, the Zinn Education Project’s Teach Reconstruction Campaign, and for Philadelphia teachers as part of the Philadelphia School District’s new African American history curriculum. Teachers can help create what DeSantis and those honoring him are terrified of: children of all races armed with truth, history, and a righteous desire to work with others to change the world.Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Central High School in Philadelphia, the editor of Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War, and an editor of Rethinking Schools.
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