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Crist and Clemency Board hear appeal to clear civil rights arrest records

TALLAHASSEE — For years, Maude Burroughs Jackson rarely spoke of the fear of cattle prods and police dogs, the humiliation of being sprayed by hoses or arrests for taking part in St. Augustine's civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

It was too painful, the 68-year-old Clay County woman said.

Jackson, a retired teacher, was part of the fight for equal rights in Florida that was pivotal in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Today, as Gov. Charlie Crist prepares to leave office, he will attempt to right the wrongs inflicted upon many like Jackson, whose efforts of passive resistance were met with insults, violence, arrests and stains on their records.

"What I went through, it was a hurtful situation and to think how our people had to suffer,'' she said. "We were so deprived, and you look back at what others had and what they could do.''

At the request of Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, Crist will propose a resolution at today's meeting of the Board of Executive Clemency to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to wipe clean the arrest records of people who took part in the civil rights struggles in St. Augustine during the tumultuous times of 1963 and 1964.

In 1964, with the civil rights movement at its height, St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city, was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary. It was, thought black leader Henry Twine — who years later became a city commissioner and vice mayor of the city — an opportune time to invite Martin Luther King Jr., who was leading desegregation efforts nationwide. The civil rights struggle put the rigorously segregated city on the national stage.

The movement was in the news every night, said Canter Brown Jr., a Florida history expert teaching at Georgia's Fort Valley State University.

"Eventually, you had the mother of the governor of Massachusetts being arrested. This really gripped the national attention,'' he said. "It really changed things and helped propel the nation and the Congress toward a deeper commitment to addressing racial discrimination by changing the law. The obvious injustice that was being portrayed on the news really touched the hearts of Americans throughout the country.''

Barbara B. Allen, a St. Augustine native then living in New York, traveled to her hometown to join the demonstrations and wound up being jailed for trying to desegregate a lunch counter with a white student.

"When the police came, they came with cattle prods and requested that we leave, which we didn't. I was hit with a cow prod. I kind of jumped up and hit my knee on the counter,'' she recalled.

Allen, 75, said she was jailed on charges of illegal entry, inciting a riot and conspiracy to overthrow the American government. She remembers the date: March 28, 1964.

Purcell Conway, who lives in Palm Coast, was 15 at the time and got involved in the civil rights struggle by hanging around with college students at Florida Normal College in St. Augustine. His mother urged him never to get arrested, so he escaped whenever arrest seemed imminent. The retired New York City police lieutenant said many of his friends weren't as lucky. For some, today's resolution will be too late.

"So many of my friends who received criminal records were unable to get jobs,'' Conway said. "One young man who applied for the Army was refused and he died about three years ago. It was just always a part of his life. He was very upset about it.''

Crist said passing the resolution is the right thing to do "based on what the senator has shared with me."

Crist was an 8-year-old elementary school student in St. Petersburg at the time of the protests.

King had come in an effort to peacefully integrate the local beaches. Gov. Farris Bryant deputized dozens of law enforcement officers, who made waves of arrests of black protesters.

"It was a different time,'' Crist said. "Any recommendation, I think, even if it's merely that from the Cabinet, I think could be very helpful, if judicial intervention is necessary."

Hill said the resolution would also ask that the $75 fee to have records expunged be waived. He said similar request letters have also been sent to the other three clemency board members who also serve on the Cabinet: Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.

Hill and state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, filed legislation last session seeking to clear the protesters of any arrest records but it didn't pass.

Allen said her arrest caused her to lose her post office job in New York and to be denied a chance to attend college to become a nurse, until civil rights lawyer William Kunstler stepped in to help her get her job back and eventually continue nursing school.

Maude Jackson was attending college in St. Augustine when she was arrested three times for participating in sit-ins. The cattle prods and dogs used by police frightened her, she said.

The first time she went to jail was an Easter Sunday weekend.

"I went to the Monson Restaurant. My group, six of us, three blacks and three whites, we went and sat in and they asked us to leave. The waitress said, We don't serve n------ here, and I said we didn't order any. We sat there and waited for the police to come. They came and carried us off to jail,'' she said.

The longest time she remained in jail was three or four days.

"I was interning at one of the elementary schools there. I had second grade, and I didn't show up and I was told that I might be kicked out of school. Dr. King said if they give you any trouble, you just call me.''

Jackson said she cooked a meal for King in a toaster oven in the office of local civil rights leader, the dentist Robert B. Hayling. She recalls fixing a steak, salad and toast. "It was an honor to cook for him,'' she recalled.

Dan R. Warren, who at the time was the state attorney in the judicial circuit that included St. Augustine, has written Crist to support the resolution.

"One of the big issues we had was local law enforcement and its failure to rein in the Ku Klux Klan,'' he wrote.

Instead, the authorities focused on the protesters, whose arrest records remain on the books even if the charges were later dismissed.

"Many arrests were made while the demonstrators were lawfully exercising their rights of free speech under the First Amendment and extremely high bonds were set by the County Judge. … It would be of the utmost importance to the history of the civil rights movement in Florida that as one of the last acts of your administration, you take appropriate action to right this wrong.''

St. Augustine was the only place in Florida where King was arrested, said local historian David Nolan.

''It was the day-to-day demonstrations and dramatic acts in St. Augustine that really pushed the Civil Rights Act into its passage,'' he said.

King's letter to his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey brought a group of Reform rabbis to St. Augustine, Nolan said. "We had the largest mass arrest of American rabbis in American history on June 18, 1964.''

Gwendolyn Duncan, president of the 40th Anniversary to Commemorate the Civil Rights Demonstrations or ACCORD, a St. Augustine group, said the organization was providing transportation to take more than a dozen people to Tallahassee.

As a small child, she saw the KKK come marching through her neighborhood. She thought it was a parade.

"But as I grew older, I experienced the segregation of the nation's oldest city. I saw the signs. I would see the colored signs,'' she said.

Jackson, the retired teacher, left for Tallahassee Wednesday with her two sons, one of whom is an attorney.

"I'm excited about it. Really, to me, it's correcting another wrong that never should have been.''

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Crist and Clemency Board hear appeal to clear civil rights arrest records 12/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 11:27pm]
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