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Martin Dyckman: Florida's first governor who championed black causes

Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew fought against segregation.

Times files (1975)

Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew fought against segregation.

Although Charlie Crist has genuinely earned the affection of the state's African-American legislators, it's quite a stretch to call him, as some do, "Florida's first black governor."

The second, perhaps, but not the first.

That distinction, were he to claim it, would belong to Reubin Askew, who served from 1971 through 1978.

Among Askew's "firsts":

• Florida's first black Supreme Court justice, Joseph W. Hatchett, whom Askew appointed in 1975 when extensive scandal at the court created a timely vacancy.

• Florida's first black department head, Community Affairs secretary Athalie Range, and Florida's first black senior gubernatorial staffer, education adviser Claud Anderson.

• Florida's first black post-Reconstruction Cabinet member, Secretary of State Jesse J. McCrary Jr., whom Askew appointed to finish a term in 1978.

• Florida's first affirmative action plan for state employment, prompted by a study he ordered that found most of the state's minority and female workers to be paid below the poverty line. As often as he could, Askew appointed the first blacks to vacancies on courts, county commissions and school boards. When Crist's father resigned from the Pinellas County School Board in 1977, Askew appointed Morris Stith, a black clergyman, to succeed him.

• The first gubernatorial address, at least so far as I have been able to find, to an NAACP dinner.

• The first attempt at automatic restoration of civil rights for ex-felons, predating by 33 years Crist's successful initiative to that end. The Supreme Court found unconstitutional the legislation Askew signed.

In a defining act during his first year as governor, Askew put his career on the line — astounding many Floridians and even some of his staff — by calling for peaceful cooperation with federal court school busing orders. As Askew gave that speech, at the University of Florida summer commencement, George Wallace and former Florida Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr. were energetically fanning antibusing hysteria in the state.

"Perhaps the most crucial September in the long and remarkable history of our public schools will be upon us, in a matter of days," Askew said. "How sad it will be if the emotions of the hour become the legacy of a generation."

Conceding busing to be an "artifical and inadequate instrument of change," Askew declared that "the law demands, and rightly so, that we put an end to segregation in our society." (Emphasis supplied.)

He confronted popular opinion again in 1972, when the Legislature put an antibusing straw vote on the presidential primary ballot. Askew campaigned against it and for a second ballot question, added at his insistence, calling for equal opportunity in education. It passed with more votes than the antibusing issue did.

Askew ordered an investigation of Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, Florida's most notorious racist, resulting in McCall's indictment for second-degree murder in the death of a black prisoner. Askew suspended McCall and refused to reinstate him even after a trial jury acquitted the sheriff.

In another defining moment, Askew in 1975 approved a full pardon for Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, blacks who had spent 12 years in prison, eight of them on death row, for another man's crime at Port St. Joe. News that he was considering the pardon was poorly received in the Panhandle and cost him votes in his 1974 re-election.

Askew did not wait for statewide office to establish his "New South" credentials. As Florida State University's student body president in 1951, he supported an intercampus resolution calling for the desegregation of the university system. Elected to the Legislature in 1958, he stood with Gov. LeRoy Collins against an avalanche of segregationist legislation and helped to sustain Collins' veto of a $500,000 appropriation for propaganda to promote the "true Southern way of life."

All this made headlines throughout his administration and hate mail mixed with the praise. It was not really so long ago, as history measures time, but it was long enough, especially in a state notable for its collective amnesia, for too many people to forget how tough the ground was and who first plowed it.

Martin Dyckman, a retired Times associate editor, is author of A Most Disorderly Court. He has previously authored a biography of LeRoy Collins and is working on a book about Askew and the progressive Florida legislatures of the 1970s.

Martin Dyckman: Florida's first governor who championed black causes 03/31/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 1:17pm]
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