For 25 years, Bill Maxwell wrote a column for the then-St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Bay Times. His award-winning columns were also syndicated, appearing in more than 200 newspapers worldwide.
Maxwell’s voice was among the most recognizable on the Times’ pages, not only for his clear and powerful writing but for his direct attack. He did not dance around issues, even the most contentious ones. He went at them head on.
If, like me, you have missed that voice since he left the Times in 2019, I have good news. The University Press of Florida has published a collection of his writing from the years 2000 to 2019, “Maximum Vantage: New Selected Columns.”
The columns are grouped by subject matter, highlighting the issues Maxwell has long focused on: racism, farmworkers, education and environment. It concludes with a selection called “Favorites” that includes a salute to libraries, an epilogue for a drive-in theater, pieces on longtime friendships and a tribute to journalism.
Maxwell’s life has given him personal insight into those four issues. He is a Black man, the son of migrant farmworkers, a longtime college professor and a Florida native who is passionate about protecting its natural wonders.
But his columns don’t rely only on his own experiences. He’s a reporter of voracious curiosity, and one who didn’t just ask questions of the obvious official or spokesperson.
The first group of columns, on racism, reveals that Maxwell’s opinions can be unexpected, even contrarian. Having been involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s as a young man, he praises not only Black activists but the white women from the North who came to the South to register voters and organize, often at risk of their lives.
In several columns he criticizes then-President Barack Obama for what he sees as an approach to racial issues that avoids confrontation. He wrestles with the complex problems of Black-on-Black violence and white people who deny their privilege: “Most white people want race to simply go away without having to do anything substantive about it,” he wrote in 2009. “They want people like me to shut up. They do not realize that silence will sink us deeper into the mire.”
Maxwell often writes about those directly affected by policies, laws or social attitudes. To focus on the exploitation of migrant farmworkers, in 2009 he wrote about the death of Luis Martinez, 2-year-old son of strawberry pickers living at an illegal camp for farmworkers in Valrico. Luis died after he fell into an uncapped septic tank, and his death exposed the horrific conditions at the camp, run by the contractors who employ the workers.
Many of his columns on the environment address the tremendous damage humans have done to natural Florida, especially the Everglades, where Maxwell lived for a time as an artist in residence. He recounts the tragic cycle through the years of politicians’ promises to protect and restore the Everglades and their inevitable surrender to developers and polluters, columns that echo one another, with only the names changed.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
As a longtime educator, he writes with insight about Florida’s schools, in one column outlining how charter schools often become a means of resegregation, in another recalling the utter joy of being exposed to a multitude of new ideas and people while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Several of the columns address the impact on teachers of government policies. In one column he wrote, “Governor, when Florida, like most other states, faces a critical teacher shortage, you and your conservative, from-somewhere-else supporters give us education on the cheap. And you continue to ignore the concerns of our most important resource: our inspired, competent teachers.
“As a black man educated in Jim Crow’s evil system of segregation, I learned that when my teachers feel good about themselves and their profession, children are the real winners.
“Today, Governor, too many of our good teachers feel humiliated because of you. As far as they are concerned, you are not on their side.”
The year was 2002, the governor was Jeb Bush. Only the name has changed.
Maximum Vantage: New Selected Columns
By Bill Maxwell
University Press of Florida, 259 pages, $28
Meet the author
Tombolo Books presents A 20-Year Retrospective with Bill Maxwell, in conversation with Florida Humanities executive director Nashid Madyun, at 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at the bookstore, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at tombolobooks.com/events