Union League of Philadelphia under fire for bestowing honor on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Community activists, lawmakers and clergy led a large protest in front of Center City landmark
Civil rights activist Melissa Robbins, Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes and Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson
Civil rights activist Melissa Robbins, Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes and Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson speak out against the Union League's decision to honor Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with the prestigious gold medal. Photo credit Racquel Williams/KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — “We call on the Union League to cancel the honoring of Gov. Ron DeSantis today,” said civil rights activist Melissa Robbins on Tuesday afternoon, standing in front of the elite club's home on Broad Street.

Backed by groups including The Urban League of Philadelphia, NAACP, National Action Network, clergy of various faiths and city and state lawmakers, Robbins was the first to step to the podium to protest the Union League's decision to honor the far-right Florida governor with its prestigious gold medal.

The Union League has a long history of recognizing top conservatives — from U.S. Sen. John McCain to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

But pushback to the news of DeSantis’ recognition has been met with instant and robust opposition, as Black clergy and educators across the country grapple with the Florida governor’s latest move: Last week, he blocked an advanced placement course on African American studies from being taught in Florida high schools. Florida law does require teaching African American history in public schools, but the DeSantis administration says the new AP course designed by The College Board "lacks educational value" based on its inclusion of topics such as "Black queer studies, aspects of critical race theory, and reparations.

“There’s an active movement to whitewash education here in America. African American history is American history,” said City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson.

Founded on the principles of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the Union League, according to its website, laid the philosophical foundation of other Union Leagues across a nation torn by civil war. It has hosted U.S. presidents, heads of state, industrialists, entertainers and dignitaries from around the globe and has proudly supported the American military in every conflict since the Civil War. In 2022, Club Leaders Forum named it No. 1 city club in the country for the sixth consecutive time.

The Union League’s prestigious gold medal was first given to President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Rally organizers, such as the Rev. Robert Collier Sr., president of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, say honoring DeSantis with this same medal is a slap in the face to the Black and brown people of Philadelphia.

“This smells like Jim Crow 2023. We will not allow anyone from Florida or wherever to come to Philadelphia and disrespect us!” Collier said.

Protesters gather at the Union League in Philadelphia.
Protesters gather at the Union League in Philadelphia. Photo credit Racquel Williams/KYW Newsradio

Not mincing words about his distaste for DeSantis, Pennsylvania state Rep. Ben Waxman said Philadelphia is both inclusive and diverse, and it will stay that way.

“We definitely don’t need some out-of-town punk governor to tell us the way that it ought to be,” he said.

Addressing the Union League itself, state Sen. Vincent Hughes said, “Why would you use your money and your alleged commitment to our city to benefit the coffers of someone else who don’t give a damn about Black folks?”

In his home state of Florida, DeSantis is actively fighting against federal protections for LGBTQ Americans in education, health care and more. He has privately stood by people who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election, while publicly saying nothing. And he is under fire for using state funds to fly migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, so they could make “a fresh start in a sanctuary state.”

DeSantis has vowed to continue sending migrants to so-called liberal parts of the country, and has reportedly floated the idea of sending migrants to Delaware, the home state of President Joe Biden.

Of the elite social club’s more-than 4,000 members, 100 of them reportedly do not support DeSantis receiving the honor. Protest organizers are calling on them to rescind their Union League memberships, and they want city and state businesses to discontinue hosting events there.

Some opposition organizers say the move by the Union League is more than about bestowing a prestigious honor, but rather about possibly “shopping” a more palatable republican candidate for President.

A resolution will be introduced this week in City Council that denounces the Union League for honoring DeSantis. Calls to the Union League for comment went unreturned.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Racquel Williams/KYW Newsradio