(RNS) — In a speech to a women’s convention of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tuesday (Aug. 1), Vice President Kamala Harris responded to a written invitation from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to discuss the state’s controversial standards for teaching the history of slavery in public schools.
“I’m here in Florida and I will tell you there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery,” she said to applause and cheers at the quadrennial convention of the Women’s Missionary Society of the AME Church in Orlando.
The state’s 216-page listing of social studies academic standards twice refers to instruction including “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
“Let us agree that it is a sign of strength, not of weakness, for leaders to have empathy, to be concerned about the suffering of others, and let us also agree that our faith requires action,” the vice president said. “It requires that we fight for what we know to be true, for what we know to be good and for what we know to be right.”
DeSantis, a candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, offered a meeting “given your grave concern (which, I must assume, is sincere) about what you think our standards say.” The letter, dated July 31, said the meeting could include William Allen, a member of Florida’s African American History Standards Workgroup and an adviser to the governor.
Harris opened her remarks recalling recent words she heard from her pastor, the Rev. Amos C. Brown, leader of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church: “As people of faith, we are called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God,” she said, echoing the biblical Book of Micah.
She said the society members she was addressing follow that prophet’s request.
“You care for the sick and feed the hungry,” she said at the convention, which had 3,000 registered attendees. “You organize to stop the horror of gun violence. You help Americans register to vote so they can make their voices heard.”
Harris urged them to continue to protect “hard-fought, hard-won freedoms” in the nation.
“Just consider: In states across our nation, extremists attack the freedom to vote. They pass laws to ban drop boxes, to limit early voting, to make it illegal to offer food and water to people who are standing in line for hours to simply cast their ballot,” she said. “Bishops, whatever happened to love thy neighbor?”
Harris said she felt “at home” among the AME Church members as she recalled her own Christian upbringing in Oakland, California.
“Growing up, I attended 23rd Avenue Church of God, and my sister Maya and I, we sang in the choir, of course went to Sunday school and gathered with family and friends in the basement of our church to eat food prepared by loving hands,” she said, describing churches as settings to share and find faith. “In moments of uncertainty and confusion, when the way is not clear, it is faith that guides us forward, faith in what we often cannot see yet know to be true.”
Harris also used the speech to criticize laws that have limited abortion access and LGBTQ rights.
“And, all the while, these same extremists refuse to pass reasonable gun safety laws to keep our children and places of worship safe, reasonable gun safety laws like the type Mother Emanuel has fought too long for,” she said, referring to the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the pastor and eight others were killed when a white supremacist opened fire during a Bible study in 2015.
Harris has criticized other efforts that seek to “erase or even rewrite” Black history in other recent speeches.
“Let us not be seduced into believing that somehow we will be better if we forget,” she said at the July 25 ceremony announcing the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, which includes a Chicago church and two Mississippi sites. “We will be better if we remember. We will be stronger if we remember because we all here know it is only by understanding and learning from our past that we can continue to work together to build a better future.”
Harris closed her speech of about 15 minutes to the AME women’s organization with another expression of confidence in the future.
“Let us fight with optimism, with faith and with hope,” she said, “because, as the history of our nation and the history of this church tells us, when we fight, we win.”