As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories.
I turned 21 in September 1948, cast my first vote for president in that angry political year and covered several stories that reflected the bitter fight over civil rights. I saw the Ku Klux Klan in action and was on hand when the St. Petersburg Times remade its front page to report the surprising news that Harry Truman might have defeated Thomas Dewey.
My introduction to raw Florida politics came a few nights before the Nov. 2 election when the klan mounted a big rally in Cross City intended to frighten African-Americans and keep them from going to the polls. On election eve the klan also paraded in the town of Wildwood, burning crosses and proclaiming support for the third party candidate, J. Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrats.
The klan was a viable organization in Florida then. It had an estimated 30,000 members throughout the state and a record of hate crimes, including the fatal torture of a labor organizer in Tampa named Joseph Shoemaker. When the klan paraded through Tallahassee after Gov. Fuller Warren was inaugurated in January 1949, Warren called them "hooded hoodlums and sheeted jerks."
Thurmond, then the segregationist governor of South Carolina, had broken from mainstream Democrats in July 1948, when he led 35 Southerners out of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in protest of the civil rights plank in the party platform. Suddenly the so-called Solid South, long a bastion of the Democratic Party, was splintered.
With that backdrop, the Times sent a three-man team to Cross City to cover the klan's pre-election rally. It consisted of me, reporter Dick Fryklund and photographer Johnnie Evans, who was equipped with infrared film to shoot pictures in the dark. Fryklund and I had been classmates at the University of Minnesota and spoke like liberal snowbirds. Evans, a Southerner with a rich accent and cherubic visage, wound up saving Fryklund and me from a beating.
We had been instructed to see if we could find any vehicles at the rally that bore Pinellas County tags. In those days, license numbers began with the number of the county in which they were issued. Pinellas was 4. The klansmen, however, had covered their plates with strips of cloth to obscure the numbers. We were busy lifting these cloths when caught.
I blurted out that a highway patrolman had said it was illegal to cover license plates. The klansmen consulted an FHP officer who was observing the rally. Fortunately, he confirmed what I said, though I hadn't talked to him. In any case, we hadn't discovered any vehicles from Pinellas.
Brought before the grand wizards and kleagles, Fryklund and I found that Evans had already sweet-talked his way into their presence and was even taking group pictures of the preening klansmen. We reporters were forgotten as they posed. Evans never had to shoot his infrared film in secret.
Later, I found a pay phone and started to dictate our story to night editor Norman Bunin. But editor and publisher Nelson Poynter got on the line to say there had been a change in plans. Let's not give these people all this publicity, he said. The paper would cover the klan rally with a brief wire service story. We drove back to St. Petersburg in silence.
On election night I got another assignment — to cover the vote count in Brooksville. The town was named after Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman who in 1856 walked into the Senate chamber and beat Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, senseless with a gold-headed cane. Afterward, Brooks was reviled in the North but so celebrated in the South that some Southerners sent him gold-headed canes stamped "hit him again."
Unfortunately, there was a power failure that night in Brooksville. The vote counters had to count ballots manually by lantern-light and the effort dragged on past midnight, too late to file a story. I don't remember the final tally. I drove glumly back to St. Petersburg, to find a crowd in the newsroom at 2 a.m.
Wire editor George Putney, a taciturn guy who wore a green eyeshade, had noticed the voting tide had turned against Dewey, the heavily favored Republican. Truman, the supposedly embattled Democrat, was pulling ahead. Poynter and executive editor Tom Harris decided to makeover the original front page, which reported that Dewey was in a "Hoss Race'' with Truman. A "stop" button on a pillar in the newsroom was pushed — and the press stopped running, just like in the movies!
The original front page had an illustration by staff cartoonist Joe Roberts that showed an elephant carrying a sign reading, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." Roberts was called back to his desk and drew another cartoon showing red-faced pollsters reduced to selling apples. Poynter pounded out a new editorial at 4 a.m.
The Chicago Tribune famously erred in its first edition headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman.'' The Times was more cautious, in both its original front page and the extra that rolled off the presses at 7:10 a.m. with a headline ("And It May Be Truman") and story correctly foreshadowing a Truman upset.
It was a milestone event in journalism and political reportage, and at age 21 I was lucky to be there.
Times researchers Christopher Sturgeon and Tim Rozgonyi contributed to this report. Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, can be reached at email@example.com.