Many of the vestiges of Florida's racist history have faded over the decades — except in Gadsden County, where it appears discrimination remains acceptable and flourishes. After an apparent plot by the white political establishment to systematically oust black elected officials and government workers from their jobs, the U.S. Justice Department and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi should investigate and move quickly to protect the civil rights of residents in this small county trapped in a time warp.
As reported by the Times' Lucy Morgan, several white Gadsden officials, in an effort to "whiten up" local government, manipulated local elections to ensure greater white representation on the County Commission. Once that was accomplished, they methodically culled black supervisors from the ranks of county employees.
The disturbing revelations came to light last year after Gadsden County public works director Robert Presnell stood up to the bullies and filed a complaint alleging illegal campaign contributions were used to displace a black county commissioner with a white commissioner. Presnell was immediately fired by the commission, but he later received a whistle-blower settlement of $22,500, restoration of back pay and his old job back.
At the center of the controversy is Gadsden County Commissioner Douglas Croley, who has been named in three civil rights lawsuits as the instigator behind ensuring the County Commission was no longer controlled by black commissioners. Croley also was the leader in insisting upon the removal of black employees, whom he referred to as "the Tribe." An attorney for Croley and other commissioners denies they did anything wrong, but the changes appear too coordinated to be unintended. It seems apparent that Croley and his cronies regarded Gadsden County as a personal political fiefdom exempt from election and civil rights laws and basic standards of human dignity.
Along with the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department, Bondi, as the state's chief law enforcement officer, also has an obligation to vigorously investigate if black residents of the Gadsden County were disenfranchised as a result of Croley's effort to unduly influence local elections.
It would be nice, albeit naive, to believe Florida has moved beyond its often sorry history of racial discrimination. And in so many areas of the state, a compelling case can be made that progress has been substantial. In Gadsden County, it seems, time stopped in the 1950s.