Philly NAACP protests over Union League award to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Hours before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was to be honored at the Union League in Philadelphia, protesters criticized the award, calling it a “slap in the face” for black and Latino people.

DeSantis will receive the highest honor of the bunch, a gold medal first awarded to President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during a reception and program Tuesday night.

The city’s NAACP chapter is asking the private club to cancel the event, an unlikely outcome because The Union League has already turned down a similar request from more than 100 dues-paying members.

Protesters chanted “shame” on anyone walking in or out of the club’s gates on Sansom Street on Tuesday afternoon. Most ignored the protesters, but some exchanged words and insults.

Earlier, protesters filled the sidewalk in front of the historic club for nearly an hour. The Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Church, called on Union League members to resign from the club.

“If you want to maintain a membership with them and if you want to do business with them, that’s going to cause us a problem,” Waller said. “And you need to understand, don’t come after us unless we call you. Because you don’t want this smoke.

Before the protest, the NAACP chapter had taken note of Florida’s decision Friday to reject a proposed advanced course in African-American studies for schools in the state, a decision DeSantis upheld Monday, saying the course amounted to ” indoctrination”.

“The fact that Governor DeSantis has denied black and brown people their own history is an affront to their culture,” said the Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. “This smells like Jim Crow 2023.”

City Councilwoman Sharon Vaughn said she will bring a resolution to Council on Thursday to denounce the Union League.

“We have to let them know that we will not tolerate this nonsense,” he said. “And if you come to Philly and act crazy, we’ll greet you with the same energy.”

City Councilor Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the district where the club is located, declared that “African-American history is American history,” repeating that line twice to a cheering crowd.

Catherine Hicks, president of the city’s NAACP chapter, said protest organizers tried to discuss the event with Union League leaders.

“We got silence,” Hicks said.

There’s a good chance that DeSantis, a likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate known for his rhetorical skirmishes with critics, sees as much value in being vilified as he does in being delighted.

The NAACP, in a press release Tuesday, repeated concerns first raised in an October letter from those club members about DeSantis. Those claims include:

  1. DeSantis “does not support the peaceful transfer of presidential power” and is “wrong about an armed insurrection against the United States” on January 6, 2021.

  2. DeSantis supports political candidates “spreading the lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.”

  3. DeSantis has “trampled on the First Amendment” by supporting “banning books in libraries and schools and restricting what schoolteachers can say and teach.”

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party also criticized DeSantis and what it called his “extreme agenda,” including an abortion ban he signed into law in Florida last year that does not include exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

DeSantis’ event, which first sparked disunity in the Union League in September, was originally scheduled for Oct. 13 but was later postponed after Hurricane Ian struck Florida.

The club was founded during the Civil War in 1862 to support Lincoln and his policies. He describes the gold medal as something “to be conferred on men who are considered deserving of their country.”

The Union League has steadfastly refused to publicly discuss the DeSantis event or the backlash it generated within the club. The event, with tickets going for $160, is sold out.

The Union League told members last week that electronic devices must be turned off during the DeSantis event and that no photography or video recording is allowed. Members are also not allowed to ask DeSantis for his autograph.