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Teacher Sues After Being Reassigned Over Black Lives Matter Support; Study Says 3 in 4 Americans Overestimates Ability to Spot Fake News; Biden Releases Proclamation to Mark Tulsa Race Massacred Centennial; Wilberforce University Wipes Out All Student Debt. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired May 31, 2021 - 15:30   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Why? Because she refused to remove a Black Lives Matter sign above her classroom door.

Now she's taking the Florida district to court. She says her First Amendment rights were violated. Now, that's one fight.

There's another one happening at this school. The push to rename it. It's Robert E. Lee High School -- that's where she works in Jacksonville. Also there's a move to rename several other schools in Duval County.

Amy Donofrio joins us now along with her attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Bacardi Jackson.

Thank you both for being with me. Amy let me start with you and why you needed to -- why you thought you needed to hang this message, Black Lives Matter, above your classroom door?

AMY DONOFRIO, TEACHER REASSIGNED FOR SUPPORT OF BLACK LIVES MATTER: Yes, I think that's a great question. You know, just to give you some context. We're in a school that is 70 percent black, named Robert E. Lee High School, home of the generals. We're in the midst of really living history, right? Biggest civil rights movement of our time. George Floyd has been killed.

We're having these name change meetings that are progressively becoming, at our school to change the name, are progressively becoming really rallies for white supremacy complete with pom-poms the color of the Confederacy. And I just wanted to make it clear to my students that when they walk into my room, they can feel safe. They can let out a breath. They can know that they matter.

BLACKWELL: Listen, I know that school, that area well. I lived in Jacksonville for four years, a mile away in Riverside, so I know Robert E. Lee High School. I know the population that you're teaching. Was it controversial in the room? Was it controversial with the other teachers?

DONOFRIO: No, in fact, it was something that I think was really comforting, really positive. You know, it just further -- really my classroom is meant to represent my students, right, students that are in it. I think that they felt represented, I think that they felt cared for. I would think in a school that would be a positive thing.

BLACKWELL: Amy, one more for you. And then Bacardi I'm coming to you.

The district, Amy, says this is part of their statement, the district has opened a human resources matter to review allegations of potential misconduct under school board policy and the principles of professional conduct for the education profession in Florida. The presumption of innocence applies. However, Ms. Donofrio has been removed from school and classroom duties while the matter is reviewed.

What do you understand the potential misconduct to be?

DONOFRIO: You know, quite honestly, it's hard to understand. I wanted every one of my students to walk into my classroom and know they mattered because they do. And I'm not sure what's problematic or concerning about that.

BLACKWELL: Bacardi, to you, tell us about this case. This is now a suit against Duval County Public Schools. What's the defense and why you think you can win here?

BACARDI JACKSON, MANAGING ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: Well, this is a case about retaliation. It's a case about, you know, when you become a public employee and you're a teacher, you don't check your rights to be able to speak on matters of public importance at the door.

And so, Ms. Donofrio has done nothing but that. The retaliation came after she made comments on her Facebook page about matters of public importance. And that's not something that the school is allowed to do, both under federal law and the state law. So, she has been retaliated against both for her speech as well as for complaining about discrimination against black students.

BLACKWELL: Amy, Florida Education Commissioner's Office, they used you as an example as they are trying to get rid of or keep critical race theory out of the classroom. Let's listen.


RICHARD CORCORAN, FLORIDA EDUCATION COMMISSIONER: I've censured or fired or terminated numerous teachers for doing that. I'm getting sued right now in Duval County which is Jacksonville because it was an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter. We made sure she was terminated and now we're being sued by every one of the liberal left groups for freedom speech issues.


BLACKWELL: An entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter. The commissioner's office says that he was referring, when he said terminated, to being terminated from classroom instruction, not fired. What's your response to the characterization you heard there? DONOFRIO: I mean, quite honestly, it was devastating, it was shocking.

You know, part of the implication was about my students and questioning if they were high-performing. I just want to say that my students are not only performing well, they are exceptional.


My students and I presented four times at Harvard University, we met President Obama. They excelled and soared, and my classroom simply represented them, their achievements and their lives and their value. And to see that instead of being applauded and supported, it to be denigrated in that way or deemed unacceptable, not just by our school, but by our entire state education system. It's devastating.

BLACKWELL: Bacardi, to you. We know there are statehouses across the country that are working to keep the history and the role of racism in American history out of the classroom. On this day of all days, the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. What does that mean for a generation of students if that is not included in education, it's not included in curricula?

JACKSON: You know, this is history that we have seen repeated over and over again when there becomes a movement to try to stop and quell movements towards freedom. And that's what's been happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the statements about race and people trying to understand the systematic and structural barriers.

And the backlash has been pretty vicious. This whole notion of trying to put things under the umbrella of critical race theory when that's not even what's being taught. It's basic American history. And for us to not want our students to understand their own history is a tragedy that is just incomprehensible.

We should be able to understand how dangerous that is when we start to burn books and create book lists and try to dictate what students can learn and how they can think. And the language that's being used is really ironic because it's completely opposite of what is happening.

BLACKWELL: Bacardi Jackson with Southern Poverty Law Center and high school English teacher Amy Donofrio, thank you both.

DONOFRIO: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: All right, just into CNN, a study that reveals just how pervasive fake news is on social media, and broadly on the internet. How bad we are at spotting it. Next.



BLACKWELL: As many as three in four Americans overestimate their ability to discern whether a headline is real or false on social media or across the internet broadly that's according to a new study from the University of Utah and Washington University in St. Louis. Let's bring in CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy for more. People

are really bad, and they just don't know how bad they are, is that what we're learning from this?

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: That is, Victor. It's actually really revealing study that's come out. People are just overconfident in their ability to detect false news. And so, researchers asked participants, you know, how well do you think you can identify false news? And 90 percent of participants, they said that they are above average in identifying false news.

But when researchers compared that number to the actual data from the study after they take the survey about, you know, their knowledge on current events and compare it to the actual data, people place themselves, on average, about 22 percentiles higher than they scored on this test.

And so, Victor, this really just highlights this news literacy problem that we have in this country where people are consuming misinformation, conspiracy theories, things that are just not true. And they don't know it. In fact, they think they are better than other people at identifying that kind of false information.

It's something we really don't talk enough about. We kind of laugh off, you know, I think some of these conspiracy theories because they're so delusional and obviously not true, but for the people who are watching a channel like OAN or even Fox, they very much believe it.

BLACKWELL: They're designed to appear credible. They're designed to look like they are real news. In fact, they are not. Oliver Darcy, thanks so much.

DARCY: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Tomorrow President Biden will travel to Tulsa to mark 100 years since a race massacre that killed hundreds of African-Americans. Next, you'll hear from the victims' descendants who can calling for reparations.



BLACKWELL: President Biden just released a proclamation for Day of Remembrance to mark what happened 100 years ago today in the thriving community of Greenwood, Oklahoma.

A prayer wall was just dedicated at an historic church in that area. A corner of north Tulsa, also known as "Black Wall Street," where black business, art, culture flourished, became the center of one of the deadliest and most destructive race massacres in American history.

And now the new film, CNN's "Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street" takes a revealing look at what really happened in Greenwood on that tragic day a century ago. And our Abby Phillip has a look at what's being done today to compensate the few remaining survivors of the massacre and the victim's descendants.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: How long would you wait for your justice, right.

PHILLIP (voice over): Leslie Benningfield Randall, Huges Van Ellis, Viola Ford Fletcher, these are the last three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

VIOLA "MOTHER" FLETCHER, 107 YEAR OLD SURVIVOR OF THE TULSA RACE MASSACRE: I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I am 107 year old and have never seen justice. I pray that one day I will.

PHILLIP (voice over): For decades, massacre victims and their descendants have called for reparations, but now with Democrats in power in Washington, the issue is being seriously debated and studied.

REP. HANK JOHNSON (D-GA): The victims of this atrocity have been denied justice for far too long.

REP. CORI BUSH (D-MO): There's only one reason why descendants of the Tulsa massacre have not been compensated. And that reason is racism.

PHILLIP (voice over): Today this mural and half a city block are all that is left of Greenwood, also known as "Black Wall Street."


One hundred years ago it was a vibrant city within a city where black businesses, entrepreneurs, art and culture thrived. In 18 hours it was destroyed and burned to the ground by a racist mob. Historians believe as many as 300 black residents were killed.

PHILLIP: What do reparations mean to you?

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS, ATTORNEY REPRESENTING TULSA RACE MASSACRE SURVIVORS: Well, reparations, what it means, the root word is to repair, we must have financial compensation to those who suffered the massacre.

PHILLIP (voice over): With the eyes of the world trained on Tulsa, an attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons is fighting back, suing the city for

restitution, and calling for the Massacre Centennial Commission to give back to the victims some of what has been raised.

SOLOMON-SIMMONS: Now people are really starting to understand what happened in Tulsa and the magnitude of the devastation and destruction.

PHILLIP (voice over): Today, white owned businesses and corporations are rapidly developing land in Greenwood as black businesses see their presence dwindling through gentrification. Across the country, reparations have taken different forms. In

Evanston, Illinois, the city will distribute $10 million to black residents as reparations for discriminatory policies from the 1920s to the late '60s. And in California, the state may return millions in beach front property taken from a black family in the 1920s. But here in Tulsa, there's been far more resistance from elected officials, including the mayor, G.T. Bynum.

G.T. BYNUM (R) MAYOR OF TULSA OKLAHOMA: Getting in and trying to make cash payments to people, it divides the community on something that we need to be united around.

REGINA GOODWIN (D) OKLAHOMA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: I disagree. And again, what is divisive is when we're not willing to talk about the truth. When we're not willing to talk about the harm done. What I am saying is even as a descendant, let's take care of the survivors right now that are in our face and let's take care of them.


BLACKWELL: Abby Phillip joins me now. That's an important point. Because often what we here, as I said earlier, the opposition to reparations is well, these are not the actual people who were victims of the atrocity. We have three who are. Where does the fight stand now?

PHILLIP: Yes, not only three who are victims but there are clear records of descendants, one of them was Representative Goodman who you saw at the end of that piece. And so that's one of the arguments that's being made by the attorneys who have brought this latest case, asking for reparations, is that this is a very clear case in which you know who the victims are. You know what restitution should look like, and it should be the place where reparations are seriously done, somewhere in this country, for a massacre that we are spending so much time now commemorating.

And I should note, Victor, that this is not the first time that either the survivors or their descendants have gone to court for reparations. Almost immediately after the massacre, there were efforts to get reparations. They were all unsuccessful.

BLACKWELL: Abby Phillip, excellent story. Thank you so much for being with us. And again the CNN film, "Dreamland" that tells the story of "The Burning of Black Wall Street" airs tonight at 9:00 Eastern. Here's a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Imagine Harlem, Bourbon Street, and Chocolate City all in one place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From executive producers Lebron James and Maverick Carter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People call it the Black Wall Street.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was nothing that you could not do. The sky was the limit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A strong black community. Destroyed by a white mob.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's lynch talks on the streets of Tulsa.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: White Tulsans murdering black folks ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Between one hundred and three hundred people most of them black were killed by white mobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today they call it a massacre.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A crime was hidden.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Victims were buried in unmarked graves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were trying to get rid of the bodies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: White Tulsans could control the narrative.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a systemic coverup.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a responsibility and obligation to find the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street".




BLACKWELL: This is a good one. It's graduation season, you know, and two classes of college seniors just got a very generous gift. The president of Wilberforce University which is and HBCU in Ohio surprised the graduates at the end of commencement by saying this.


ELFRED ANTHONY PINKARD, PRESIDENT, WILBERFORCE UNIVERSITY: Because you have shown that you are capable of doing work under difficult circumstances. Because you represent the best of your generation, we wish to give you a fresh start. So therefore, the Wilberforce University Board of Trustees has authorized me to forgive any debt.


BLACKWELL: I would have fallen clean out my chair. All debt, that includes the debt, the school fines for 2020 and 2021 grants, roughly $375,000. Congratulations to all of them, all of the graduation there and high school grads. Now typically I show graduation or prom pictures, I used to do that on the weekend. Won't be doing that now. Maybe I'll post them online. Thank you so much for being with me today.

Alisyn is back tomorrow, "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts now.