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Top NAACP leader says travel advisory is 'just the beginning'

NAACP Board of Directors Chair Leon Russell says advisory is geared at raising awareness and encouraging political action.

TAMPA, Fla. — A top NAACP leader based in Tampa said the newly-released travel advisory is not a ban but a tool to raise awareness about Florida’s recently-passed laws and policies targeting diversity and racial issues.

NAACP Board of Directors Chair, Leon Russell, sat down with 10 Investigates’ Emerald Morrow about the civil rights organization's decision to issue the advisory not only as a means of warning visitors but as a way of building political traction.

NOTE: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

10 Investigates’ Emerald Morrow: Why did the NAACP decide to move forward with this advisory?

Leon Russell: We refuse to go back the laws that the Florida legislature and governor have enacted over the past year harken back to Jim Crow. They harken back to the creation of discrimination, and it’s across-the-board discrimination. And so, it seems only rational that we say to folks around the country and here in the state of Florida, it is time to resist going backward.

It's time to resist allowing a new Jim Crow to be established in this state or anywhere else in the nation. And so when you look at the litany, first of all, the litany of groups that are being theorized, that are being put in a second-class state by the laws that have been enacted. When you look at the cruelty to children, when you look at the regressive policies that are set to be put in place educationally across this state, we can't sit by and say nothing.

Morrow: On education, Gov. DeSantis has said that this state not only allows but requires the teaching of African-American history. What is your response to that?

Russell: The law said so, but then he seeks to restrict it by determining what and the extent and the interpretation of what will be taught. Quite frankly, the state was just coming into the practice of actually teaching African-American history.

And so, the actions of the governor, the state Board of Education, state education commissioner all indicate that they want to dominate. They want to interpret how Black history is taught. And really, what they really want to do is say that they're teaching it in word only because the policies that they put in place say, "Don't tell the truth." They don't provide an accurate account of what has historically taken place in this state. They lie.

Morrow: We first broke the story in March that the Florida State Conference of the NAACP was going to ask the national NAACP for this travel advisory. And at that time, Gov. DeSantis’ response was, "This is a joke."

Russell: It's not a joke. It's a very well-thought-out way to deal with what we see as moving backward in the state. It's a response. It says to us what we've known for 114 years as the NAACP. Public policy can be helpful or it can kill you. The governor may think it's a joke, but the policies that he's implementing will actually hurt people. They are cruel. And we need to stand up and we need to fight. We need to oppose those policies.

Morrow: What do you expect the impact of this travel advisory to be?

RussellLet's understand what the advisory is. It is an advisory. It is advising people who are coming into the state or who are thinking about coming into the state.

It's advising them to look at what's going on in Florida to determine if this is a place that they want to come, if this is a place that they want to be a part of. Doesn’t say don't come.

We're not banning travel. We're not boycotting Florida. Quite frankly, exactly the opposite. We're saying think about if you're coming to Florida, if you're coming to an entertainment center, come to an entertainment center that supports diversity and inclusion, come to an entertainment center that's willing to put its name out there as supporting all groups of people -- LGBTQ or whoever those people are, come to an inviting place. Don't support policies that exclude people that theorize people.

We're saying to corporate America. Think about what you do. Think about your investors. Support diversity and inclusion. Don't support exclusion. Don't support those policies that are regressive, that create discrimination, that foster discrimination.

Morrow: A number of Black fraternal organizations are planning to bring thousands of their members to Tampa this summer and in the near future following that. Under this advisory, are you calling for them to reconsider?

Russell: No. What we're saying to those organizations is you should come, but you should speak up. You should speak up about these regressive policies.

Morrow: When I first posted this story about the NAACP issuing its travel ban, I got a lot of positive reactions, but I also got a lot of negative reactions from people saying the NAACP is no longer relevant.

Russell: Well, the first thing is that's a lie because they all responded when we said something. The reaction I see is the same reaction that we got during the Civil Rights movement. "Oh, you don't like this country? Go back to Africa." It's the same reaction that we got when folks rose up against the Vietnam War. "America, love it or leave it."

We can't allow that to deter us. We didn't allow it to deter us in the 1950s and 60s and 70s. We should not do it in 2023. Those people need to understand that this is as much our country as it is anybody else's. This is our state.

10 Tampa Bay Photojournalist Adam VanceWhat I’m getting from you is this is only the beginning.

Russell: This is absolutely just the beginning. What we recognize is that you have 2024 coming up. It's a big year and you have local elections that are occurring in 2023. And so, we need to organize our folks so that they are ready to go out and vote, that they're ready to take on the issues.

NOTE: DeSantis’ press secretary issued a statement to CBS News on Monday, saying the travel advisory is “nothing more than a stunt,” and that, “Florida is seeing record-breaking tourism.”

Emerald Morrow is an investigative reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10tampabay.com.

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