As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was introducing proposed legislation that would allow parents to sue schools teaching critical race theory in the classroom, he invoked the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to try to make his point about the Stop Woke Act and the escalating conflict over the teaching of race.

“You think about what MLK stood for. He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” DeSantis said Wednesday to a rally-style crowd in Wildwood, Fla. “You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don’t talk about that.”

DeSantis’s Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act — which comes months after Florida banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools despite no evidence of it happening in the state — would give parents “private right of action” to sue if they think their kids are being taught critical race theory, as well as let parents collect attorneys’ fees if they win the lawsuit. The proposal, which promises to be “the strongest legislation of its kind in the nation,” would also apply to the workplace, according to a news release.

“We have the responsibility to stand for the truth, for what is right,” DeSantis said, adding that taxpayer dollars would not “be used to teach our kids to hate our country or to hate each other.” He added: “We also have to protect our people and our kids from some very pernicious ideologies that are trying to be forced upon them all across the country.”

The announcement of the proposed legislation was denounced by critics and liberals as a political stunt featuring what Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali described as “a racist dog whistle but with a facially neutral cover.” Detractors accuse DeSantis, considered a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, of inflaming an already contentious culture war over critical race theory, an academic framework for examining the way laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism.

“Stop creating fake problems,” Florida state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani (D) tweeted.

Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman with DeSantis’s office, told The Washington Post that the proposed legislation is expected to be drafted and brought to the state legislature when the new legislative session begins next month. It would need to be passed into law before the end of March, she said.

“Following the passage of the ban on critical race theory, we realized it was a great first step but that it hadn’t gone far enough,” she said. “We are optimistic about this [proposal] because we do have legislative leaders who are interested in this and support legislative rights.”

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

By invoking King, DeSantis is following a similar path to former president Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who earlier this year claimed that critical race theory goes “against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us.” That notion from Republican leaders has been rejected by the children of the civil rights leader.

The proposal from DeSantis to allow parents to sue schools over critical race theory comes at the end of a year in which conservatives nationwide have pushed back against racial equity initiatives by schools, including teaching about racism in American history.

With a heightened focus on racial equity in schools in the months after George Floyd’s murder, race became a factor in hundreds of local and statewide elections this year. The issue played a pivotal role in Virginia, where Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory came, in part, after a campaign in which he emphasized parents’ rights to, for instance, block the teaching in the classroom of a novel that shows the brutality of slavery.

In Florida, DeSantis joined other high-profile Republicans in regularly bringing up critical race theory to supporters and donors, accusing public education systems of divisiveness and indoctrination.

The Florida governor’s disdain for the academic framework echoed Trump, whose comments opposing critical race theory were the largest applause line during a North Carolina rally over the summer. After McCarthy, in an interview, accused Democrats of embracing teachings that went against King, his daughter Bernice King said the Republican leader had his history wrong.

“This nation has yet to firmly commit to the intensive, multi-faceted work of eradicating racism against Black people,” she tweeted in response to McCarthy. “You should help with that.”

In June, as tension over the issue began to boil, DeSantis went one step further when the Republican-controlled Board of Education voted to ban public schools from teaching students about critical race theory. Several other states have passed bills banning the teaching of certain race-related issues in schools and elsewhere, with legislation pending in many other states.

On Wednesday, DeSantis called for an expansion of the ban in his proposal. He accused those pushing for racial equity in schools of distorting history:

“Just to understand, when you hear ‘equity’ used, that is just an ability for people to smuggle in their ideology. We don’t need to have these terms.”

Part of the Stop Woke Act would prevent school funding from being put toward consultants connected to critical race theory and would stop staff members from having to go through “anti-racist therapy” or training. DeSantis said that “it violates Florida standards to scapegoat someone based on their race, to say that they are inherently racist, to say that they are an oppressor, or oppressed or any of that, and that’s good and that’s important.”

Some noted how the lawsuit element in DeSantis’s Stop Woke Act appeared to be modeled after a Texas abortion bill signed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) that allows citizens to sue anyone they believe may have been involved in helping a pregnant person violate the “heartbeat ban” abortion measure, which prohibits the procedure the moment fetal cardiac activity can be detected.

Pushaw said the structures were different in that the Florida proposal allows a resident to file a lawsuit only if they were personally involved or if they’re a parent of a minor affected by the teachings.

DeSantis was joined onstage by political supporters and advocates, including Christopher Rufo, a documentary filmmaker turned conservative activist whose call to action against critical race theory last year helped spur what has become one of the latest cultural wedge issues in the United States.

“Governor Ron DeSantis is not only protecting all of the employees and students in the state of Florida. He is providing a model for every state in the United States of America,” Rufo said in a news release. “Critical Race Theory is wrong; it offers nothing to improve the lives of anyone of any racial background.”

But Florida Democrats and critics saw Wednesday’s event as political theater.

“In all of my 38 years of living, I have never seen or heard such foolishness,” tweeted state Sen. Shevrin “Shev” Jones (D).

Others worried about the effect the proposed legislation could have in Florida and elsewhere if it were to become law.

“Passing laws like the Stop Woke Act to ban teaching about the existence of racism literally proves a central point of critical race theory — that racism is often built in to our legal system & must be actively purged to achieve true justice,” tweeted Qasim Rashid, a human rights lawyer and SiriusXM personality.

At the end of the event, DeSantis thanked supporters with an unexpected Christmas surprise: signed white hats from the governor.

“And the governor has come bearing some gifts,” he said with a grin before chucking the caps at his supporters. “You guys want a hat? I’m going to fling these into the crowd.”

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.

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