Flagler College Professor Speaks Out Amid Critical Race Theory Concerns

Dr. J. Michael Butler, Kenan Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the African American Studies Program at Flagler (photo via Flagler College).

By Casey Niebuhr | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Late last month, Flagler College professor Dr. J. Michael Butler was scheduled to lead a teacher training seminar for Osceola County K-8 teachers to help better contextualize the civil rights movement into their curriculum and to incorporate source materials into their classrooms.

The Osceola County School District cancelled the workshop three days before it was supposed to be held, citing in part concerns over “critical race theory,” despite there being no mention of critical race theory in Butler’s presentation. According to Butler, his materials – which the school district never requested – and presentation, titled “The Long Civil Rights Movement” raised “red flags.”

“This is a topic that I have done numerous times, to numerous groups,” Butler said in a private interview. “One of the greatest honors I have as a professional is to educate our educators.”

Butler said that the seminar was an opportunity for him to engage with people who were of like mind in their passion for history. “More than anything else it’s the teachers that had the rug pulled out from under them, not me.”

He intended his seminar to provide context for their course topics regarding the civil rights movement. Butler’s lectures postulated that the civil rights movement began long before Brown v. Board in 1954 and went beyond the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

“It was an evidence-based, chronological, and topical examination of the civil rights movement,” he said. “It was less lesson planning and more content driven … My lectures were intended to give them a foundation … Unless they do the reading on their own, they don’t have the context.”

Butler insisted that his teaching style was not ideologically or philosophically motivated. “My teaching is meant to expose students to historical truths, its evolutions and the way it continues to impact the American present … I like to teach from a top-down perspective … Great people, legislation, and how those decisions and how those people impact those who are most powerless at the bottom.”

To teach history from a single perspective, Butler says, is intellectually dishonest. “Using critical race theory as a lens to teach history is putting the cart before the horse. Any history that is driven by a particular ideology is immediately suspect.”

Butler held that he does everything possible to maintain objectivity in his classes so that his students determine their own conclusions. “I use primary sources … primary sources exist as products of their time. [I’m] not teaching people to hate each other or feel guilty,” he said, emphasizing that his goal is to reinforce historical truth.

Butler’s incident with the Osceola County School District has since been covered by the Associated Press, NBC News and more – with some media outlets going as far as depicting Butler’s frustration as an attack on Gov. Ron DeSantis and the recent legislative push of SB148, known as the “Individual Freedom” Bill, that would prohibit the teaching of critical race theory any subsequent topics that would make people feel “discomfort” when talking about race.

“I don’t think it’s a debate at all,” said Butler. “Critical race theory is not a weapon that should be used to silence the teaching of historical fact.”

Discomfort is healthy, insisted Butler. “If you’re not uncomfortable, that means something’s wrong … History is not intended to make us feel comfortable about ourselves. History’s messy, history’s uncomfortable, history’s complex.

“The interpretation of comfort makes it harder to teach topics that helps us learn about the complex American experience … What may make you rejoice may make someone very uncomfortable. How do you engage comfort in a diverse class of students?”

When asked about Butler’s accusation that Gov. DeSantis was creating a “climate of fear,” as reported by NBC News, Butler said that if he lived in fear, he would not be teaching the classes he does, warning others that censorship can happen anywhere at any time.

“Could it happen [at Flagler]? Absolutely … and that’s not commentary on the current leadership. But what happens if we have new leadership? I don’t know. To say it can’t happen here is incredibly naïve.”

Butler concluded by saying that he was not concerned about accusations of teaching critical race theory. “I’m not interested in indoctrinating or converting. I’m in the education business, not the indoctrination business … I can barely get [my students] to do the readings every week, much less buy into a theory that has Marxist undertones.”

While he has not been invited back by the Osceola County School District, Butler remains hopeful that he will have the opportunity to provide teachers resources in the future.

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