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Pioneer who desegregated Florida's beaches in 1953 returns to House

Former state Rep. Jack Mashburn, who created a Florida park for black beachgoers, was honored Wednesday at the House.

STEVE BOUSQUET | Times

Former state Rep. Jack Mashburn, who created a Florida park for black beachgoers, was honored Wednesday at the House.

TALLAHASSEE — Until 1953, when Jack Mashburn sat in the Florida House, African-Americans risked being arrested if they set foot on any of the state's beaches.

Mashburn, then a 22-year-old, first-term Democrat from Panama City, changed that, creating the first park for black beachgoers in the South. And he lost his seat in the House for it.

A year before the U.S. Supreme Court ended school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education, Mashburn persuaded his colleagues in the Legislature to set aside a beach at St. Andrews State Park for black Floridians.

"They treated me with great suspicion for one thing because they didn't think I was real," he said Wednesday, standing for the first time in decades on the floor of the Florida House. "But I told them what my father told me: 'Always do what is right, regardless of personal consequences.' "

Mashburn is 87 years old now. Two years ago, he met Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — whose wife, Anne, is a distant relative of Mashburn — at a family reunion.

Corcoran asked Mashburn to come back to Tallahassee for the ceremony that officially named the Pasco County Republican the next speaker of the House.

"Do you know how many of us have served in this chamber … who during their entire legislative careers never did anything as brave or meaningful as that 22-year-old kid who served one term and never chaired a single committee?" Corcoran said Wednesday in a speech after being elected speaker-designate.

Mashburn demurs. It was the right thing to do, he says.

"The unfairness of it, for God's sakes!" Mashburn said. "Having a person arrested for putting his foot in the sand or in the water, that is ridiculous. It always has been ridiculous."

In 1954, Mashburn lost re-election.

He doesn't remember the name of the person who beat him, but the defeat was resounding enough to end his political career. He went back to his job at Arizona Chemical, working for $2.10 an hour.

A lot has changed since then. Every beach in Florida is integrated. And nearly a quarter of state lawmakers are black. Mashburn is confident there are more people in the Legislature now who would be willing to stand up against the prevailing attitude of the day than there were in the 1950s.

On Wednesday, those present-day officials lined up to shake hands and take pictures with their predecessor.

"I just wanted to come over and say thank you," Tampa Democrat Ed Narain, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, told Mashburn. "I am here because of you."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

Pioneer who desegregated Florida's beaches in 1953 returns to House 09/16/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 16, 2015 10:54pm]
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