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Just two months after the NAACP issued a formal travel advisory for Florida, warning visitors that the state has become “openly hostile toward African Americans” under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s leadership, two major Black organizations are moving their annual multimillion-dollar conferences elsewhere.
Now advocates hope the momentum from the relocations translates to real change that affects the ballot box in 2024.
“It is our hope that the outcry and loss of revenue will force legislators to repeal the terrible bills that were passed in the last few years,” Melba Pearson, a Miami-based civil rights and criminal law attorney, told Yahoo News. “We hope that voters will make solid decisions in the upcoming elections, based on now knowing the impact these negative laws have on their neighbors, friends and communities.”
Organizations pivot from Florida
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the country’s oldest and largest intercollegiate Black fraternity, and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), one of the largest student-governed organizations based in the U.S., have decided to move their conferences that were scheduled to be in Florida in 2025 and 2024, respectively, to other states, citing a potential “hostile” environment for their members.
Alpha Phi Alpha, which was founded in 1906 and boasts a membership of more than 200,000 members and 700 chapters around the world, last week said that due to DeSantis’s “harmful, racist, and insensitive policies against the Black community,” the organization would find a new home for its 119th anniversary convention, slated to be in Orlando in 2025. The group says the event was expected to generate $4.6 million in economic impact.
"Although we are moving our convention from Florida, Alpha Phi Alpha will continue to support the strong advocacy of Alpha Brothers and other advocates fighting against the continued assault on our communities in Florida by Governor Ron DeSantis," general president Willis L. Lonzer III said in a statement.
The organization’s membership has included figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, as well as politicians David Dinkins, the first Black mayor of New York City, and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore.
NSBE, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, similarly decided after much deliberation that Florida did not offer its members enough safety and an ideal “membership experience” to be the setting for such a milestone event.
“We made the decision that the environment in Florida is not the backdrop we want for that 50th annual convention,” Avery Layne, national chair of the organization, which reports having more than 18,000 members and nearly 800 chapters worldwide, told Yahoo News.
Layne and his board of directors decided to pull out of Orlando in 2024 and relocate their conference to Atlanta in March. Many of them, he said, considered the fact that the organization was founded during the Black Power movement — a time of racial pride but also heightened racial animus. At the organization’s first conference, at Purdue University in Indiana in 1975, advisers shared stories, according to Layne, of how members traveling there from out of town were told not to stop before reaching campus because of the potential danger in that region, which was “Klan country.”
“When we are thinking about the things that are in the history and the founding of our organization and the experience that we want to provide for our members going forward, that's really what our move is about,” Layne said.
The organization said it expects the conference to contribute “multimillions of dollars” in revenue for the local region through vendors and local businesses, though it did not specify an exact figure.
NSBE CEO Janeen Uzzell, who leads the headquarters and operations side of the organization, added that the move came after conversations with the NAACP, the National Urban League and various political leaders around the state, like Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., and Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones, to help it make an informed decision.
“This is an example of what a revolution looks like in modern-day terms,” Uzzell told Yahoo News. “[It’s about] young people having the ability to pivot and change course of direction.”
Controversial Florida policies
At the center of the decisions are what critics say are the state GOP leaders’ attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity programs in Florida schools.
Last month, state leaders passed new Black history standards for Florida’s public schools, in which students must learn that some Black people benefited from slavery because it taught them useful skills. In May, DeSantis signed legislation that prohibits colleges from spending public funds on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. In the months prior, he signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts how workplaces and schools can discuss race, and blocked an Advanced Placement African American studies course in the state’s public schools, claiming it lacked “educational value.”
Florida is home to more than 22 million people, 17% of whom are African American, according to the latest census data.
The confluence of moves to upend diversity initiatives has been met with fierce opposition from political leaders, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who traveled to Tallahassee late last month to blast what she called an attempt to “replace history with lies.” But the growing backlash seems to only further embolden DeSantis and his own allies to double down.
The governor has openly mocked the notion that any kind of boycott or travel advisory would be effective, calling it a “joke” during a news conference the day after the NAACP state conference in March.
In all, at least 10 other conferences that were slated to be hosted in Fort Lauderdale, Miami or Orlando have been moved or canceled in recent months, with event organizers citing concerns over the state’s laws related to LGBTQ rights, abortion, gun laws and more. The lost revenue has cost local businesses, hotels and others in excess of $20 million, according to local tourism officials.
DeSantis’s office did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
‘This is power’
Yvette Lewis, the NAACP's Hillsborough County branch president, has been encouraged by the decisions to move the conferences, and hopes others follow.
“This is power,” she told Yahoo News. “I am so proud of you, Alpha Phi Alpha and NSBE, for standing for justice.”
Lewis, who leads the largest chapter in the state, first presented the idea of an advisory to the NAACP state conference in March, after feeling as though all other options had been exhausted. “The travel advisory is already having an effect on the economy,” she said.
As the legal redress chair for the NAACP's South Dade branch, attorney Pearson sees both moves — the conference changes and the advisory — as a win against bigotry.
“The goal of the travel advisory was to educate people on what was happening in the state of Florida, so that they can make choices on how best to move forward in deciding where to host their conferences and spend their hard-earned money,” she said. “The fact that conference organizers have taken a deeper look and made decisions accordingly is a positive.”