Alton White, civil rights leader who loved ‘every blade of grass in Tampa,’ dies at 77


TAMPA — Born into the civil rights movement, Alton Maurice White Sr. embraced it as his own while playing college football in Tallahassee.

He brought his passion home to Tampa and, for decades, played a guiding role in advancing the cause.

By his count, he was arrested 23 times for taking part in sit-ins. He was the first African-American to run for mayor in Tampa and became executive assistant to the man who beat him. He helped integrate City Hall. And when he heard the Black Panthers were coming to Tampa, he feared the damage they would cause to a peaceful movement and persuaded them to leave.

Beloved and sought after deep into his senior years, Mr. White died in Tampa on Wednesday morning after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 77.

"He should be remembered as someone who helped others," his brother Andre White said. "He never ignored a person in need."

The administration of Mayor Dick Greco, from 1967 to 1974, hired the first black firefighters, black assistant city attorney and black secretary to the mayor — all made possible with Mr. White’s help, Greco said.

"He gave me a lot of good advice and courage, especially when death threats came. He did more for this city than I think anyone realizes and did this in very trying times."

Greco put Mr. White in charge of Tampa’s Model Cities program, a salvo in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the city secured millions of dollars in grants to start job training, open health clinics and rebuild the infrastructure in Tampa’s most impoverished areas.

The investment helped bring measurable improvement in median household income, infant survival rates and housing standards, according to a 1976 city report.

"He loved Tampa," said his sister, Bernadine White-King. "He had opportunities to live other places, but would always say no, he will die in Tampa. He loved every blade of grass in Tampa."

Mr. White was born the oldest of seven children to restaurateur Moses White, known as the unofficial mayor of Central Avenue — the spine of a black community known as the "Harlem of the South" among historians.

Moses White was revered for providing free hot dogs to hungry children and serving as his community’s go-between with City Hall.

"Alton became the token of my dad, in the community and home," Andre White said. With their patriarch so busy, the fatherly duties often fell on Alton White.

"We could count on him for advice, guidance and protection," sister White-King said. "?‘Never hold a grudge,’ he’d say, ‘Treat your enemies like friends and let karma sort it out.’?"

Mr. White took up the cause of civil rights while starring on the gridiron as a fullback at Florida A&M University, he said in a 2006 oral history interview that’s part of the University of South Florida’s Special Collections.

His stage was the white-only establishments of Tallahassee, his method the sit-ins that landed him in jail.

Mindful of these lessons and inspired by his family heritage, he kept the cause alive when he returned home to Tampa.

"There can be only one Alton White," said Fred Hearns, Mr. White’s friend and a historian of Tampa’s African-American community. "He inherited a lot of wisdom, wouldn’t waste that and was as kind as he was powerful."

In 1968, Mr. White became the first African-American appointed to the Florida Educational Television and Radio Advisory Board and in 1969, the first African-American on the Florida State Medical Advisory Board.

Then, in 1974, Mr. White made history when he ran for mayor.

He lost, but winner Bill Poe created the position of executive assistant so Mr. White could serve by his side.

"The only black man Bill Poe knew then was the man who did his yard," Andre White said with a laugh. "Alton introduced him around to all the black leaders so he could better serve the city."

Greco tells the story about Mr. White confronting members of the Black Panthers. They dared not ignore a man as powerful in Tampa as Mr. White, the former mayor said, even when he told them to leave and never return.

In 1974, Mr. White was among those who championed the effort to build the Ybor City campus of Hillsborough Community College. He would serve as a trustee for the school and later chairman the board.

Perhaps his proudest accomplishment, sister White-King said, was founding the county’s Summer Food Service Program that today provides nearly 500,000 free nutritious lunches and afternoon snacks to children who depend on the school lunches they receive during the academic year.

"He used to say hunger doesn’t stop in the summer," she said.

To the end, even as his Parkinson’s disease grew worse, Mr. White quietly continued mentoring young men and women.

"He never stopped," Hearns said. "We lost a treasure."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.