Friday, February 23, 2018
Opinion

Column: Florida's place in civil rights history

As we celebrate Black History Month, Floridians should take a few moments to reflect on the monumental historical events that redefined the state's racial heritage, and in doing so, hastened racial change in the nation.

Two such events immediately stand out: the destruction of Rosewood and the civil rights movement in St. Augustine. This year marks the 91st anniversary of the racial violence at Rosewood, when this predominantly black community was destroyed. It is also the 50th anniversary of the decision by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to bring their national civil rights campaign to St. Augustine (during the spring and summer of 1964).

The events at Rosewood during the first week of January 1923 highlighted the pervasiveness and horrific consequences of racism in Florida. The entire black community was destroyed following an allegation of rape against a black man who was never identified. Several residents were also murdered by white mobs, and others were driven from their property forever. In reflecting on these developments and subsequent life, one resident observed: "Nothing was the same after Rosewood."

During the intervening 91 years, Rosewood became a transformative event as the state and nation began to hear stories about individual black survivors, initially in an article by Gary Moore in July 1982 in the St. Petersburg Times' Floridian section, then in an episode of 60 Minutes, and finally from survivors themselves and former white residents.

As the events of Rosewood became public knowledge, they sparked a state and national campaign to compensate survivors for the loss of their property and the damages they suffered. Led by state legislators Al Lawson and Miguel DeGrandy, an intriguing alliance between a Democrat and Republican and an African-American and a Cuban-American, Florida compensated each of the survivors in 1994 — the only racial incident of its kind in the nation's history in which a state acknowledged its complicity and in which survivors were compensated.

In the case of St. Augustine, it was 50 years ago that the city found itself at the epicenter of the civil rights movement. In the spring of 1964, King and his fellow ministers from SCLC joined forces with local civil rights activists to do battle with city and county leaders over the community's widespread segregation policies. In between SCLC campaigns in Birmingham (1963) and Mississippi (fall 1964), King viewed the St. Augustine movement as a way to keep the issues of segregation and racial discrimination before Americans and to maintain pressure on Congress to adopt the pending Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite being only 35, King was already a veteran of three major civil rights campaigns, the nation's leading spokesman for racial change and a gifted organizer with the ability to mobilize people from all walks of life behind the movement. Calling St. Augustine "the oldest segregated city in America," he drew the national press to the city to cover the protests and recruited an army of supporters.

Local white leaders fought King at every turn and worked closely together to defeat civil rights protesters. They also privately encouraged the violence perpetrated by white extremists against the demonstrators.

Paradoxically, the actions of local leaders and militants played into the hands of King and supporters of civil rights reform. Events in St. Augustine unfolded on the national news and in the nation's newspapers, mobilizing public and congressional leaders behind the civil rights bill. The bill became law on July 2, 1964, and ended segregation in the nation. The demonstrations by young and old in St. Augustine had been instrumental in its adoption.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we need to remember that Florida's place in the nation prior to 1964 was circumscribed by racism and segregation policies that crippled its advancement and oppressed an entire race of people. It took the courageous actions of individuals in Rosewood and St. Augustine to expose this and to help secure the nation's democracy for all its people.

David R. Colburn is a historian at the University of Florida, co-author of the "Rosewood Report" and author of "Racial Change and Community Crisis: St. Augustine, Florida, 1877-1980." He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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