Editor’s Note: Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard University, an organizer of the Freedom to Learn movement and co-host of the Some of My Best Friends Are podcast. The views expressed in this essay are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Americans are losing the freedom to learn. Several states across the country have imposed bans on books, K-12 educational curricula and diversity programs in recent months. In fact, every state but one has at least attempted to restrict the right to literacy and the free exchange of ideas, according to a recent report by the Critical Race Studies program at the UCLA School of Law. And even where statewide bans are not in place, restrictive measures are being enacted by local school boards.
Such measures undermine a healthy and functioning democracy, instilling a climate of fear and self-censorship by teachers, librarians and many university faculty members. The mere mention of structural racism or gender discrimination or sexuality can potentially cost educators and librarians their jobs. Meanwhile, laws against gender-affirming healthcare and anti-trans policies in school bathrooms, locker rooms and playing fields are putting the lives of trans youths at risk.
Until just a few days ago, I did not have reason to believe that a significant number of Americans were willing to push back against these attacks on education. But for the first time, a national movement is beginning to defend the freedom to learn in the United States – and it gives me hope that we can reverse the discrimination and authoritarianism infiltrating our schools.
Last week, thousands of people in nearly 30 states turned out on college campuses and in public libraries, in Zoom and on social media for a National Day of Action. The May 3 event brought together people from all walks of life – teachers, professors, librarians, artists, students, civil rights leaders, LGBTQ+ advocates and many others – who affirmed the right to speak, write, read, teach and learn the truth about the nation we live in.
The beginnings of this national movement to defend the freedom to learn is rekindling relationships between college students and civil rights activists and inspiring new ones between college faculty and K-12 teachers and librarians. To protect all educators, for example, the American Federation of Teachers set up a Freedom to Learn and Teach hotline to report political interference and censorship.
The recent protests were as varied as the institutions. At the University of Texas at Austin, faculty and students marched to oppose legislation which recently was passed in the state Senate that could lead to an end of Black and Ethnic Studies, ban diversity, equity and inclusion activities and eliminate faculty tenure.
At Brown University, professors and students staged a public reading of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” one of the titles that lands most frequently on banned book lists across the country. “It’s meant to name this moment, and these actions we’re seeing, as anti-democratic, anti-intellectual and anti-young people in many ways,” Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana Studies, said at an event there. “If we don’t stand up, who will?”
Students at Harvard University, where I teach, organized a teach-in and rally, mobilizing students in support of their peers in states like Florida and Texas where critical race theory and gender studies have been removed from K-12 curricula.
Taking a page from the Civil Rights movement playbook, students from Morgan State, a private, historically Black university in Baltimore, Maryland, traveled by bus to join a demonstration outside the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the College Board, which earlier this year removed contemporary racial justice and Black feminist themes from the proposed AP African American Studies curriculum in response to attacks by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And in Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee, the Dream Defenders – a racial justice organization that began on college campuses in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin – occupied DeSantis’s office to show Floridians that power concedes nothing without a demand.
These were just a handful of the colleges across the country where participants have decided that it is time to embrace massive resistance. Toni Morrison, one of the most banned authors today – whose works I first read as a high school student – warned almost 30 years ago that racism and fascism can only reproduce in a climate of “fear, denial, and an atmosphere in which its victims have lost the will to fight.”
In addition to the surge of voter suppression laws, racial gerrymandering, and election results denialism, more than half the states have imposed new forms of legal segregation in education by restricting what can be taught about race, racism, gender and sexuality in the nation’s classrooms.
Tyrane Graham, a student at Morgan State, said the impact of this kind of censorship could reverberate long into the future. “It’s not about right now. It’s about the generations to come who won’t know our history and won’t know the value of Black people in America,” she said.
With such formidable alliances among students, teachers, organizers and academics being forged in communities across the country, we finally have an answer to reverse the swelling tide of injustice and authoritarianism.
And as the 2024 elections draw near, I’m convinced that more and more Americans who believe in the freedom to learn will organize to demand that elected officials strengthen and protect democracy by legislating that truth be taught, spoken and read in this nation.