In 1960, Arthenia Joyner was among the 40 students who staged a historic sit-in at the segregated Woolworth counter in downtown Tampa to fight against discrimination.
But it was hardly the first fight she launched against injustice, and it was far from her last. Joyner recently achieved the milestone of becoming the first African-American female attorney in Florida to practice law for 50 years. The former member of the Florida state house and state senate has led a life of service.
Joyner recently spoke to Times staff writer Ernest Hooper about how her mother and father, Jean and Henry Joyner, instilled in her the values that have made her a fighter, why she continues to advocate for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the emotion she felt the first time she witnessed a Ku Klux Klan march. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How does it make you feel to see a resurgence of interest in the Equal Rights Amendment?
I’m ecstatic. I’m excited. As a black woman who has been fighting all my life for everything that I believe in, it’s the continuation of another major fight. This is a continuation of a fight that I was intimately involved in since I got into the legislature in 2000 until I termed out in 2016. It’s more exciting because we only need one more state.
What do you attribute the resurgence to?
The country has changed. The attitude, the momentum. Women are more involved now and they understand perhaps what we’ve understood for the longest. At one point in history we were not considered a whole person, but then there was an amendment to the constitution that made us whole, made us be viewed as an equal. … Well, women now understand that there are laws that say we’ll be treated equal but only when it’s enshrined in the constitution does it assure you’re protected and you don’t have to worry about the caprice of change in the political leadership every year.
As an African-American woman, you had to carry two swords — one to fight for African-Americans and one to fight for women. What’s that challenge been like for you?
You have to do both because I’ve encountered sexism from black men as well. I remember when I first ran for president for the black lawyers of Florida back in 1975, and the statement was made, “I can’t vote for you. You’re a woman.” I said, but I’ve been secretary, I’ve been vice president. And of course my ex and your friend Delano Stewart wrote this long letter about … how sexism was worse than racism. And he said it to all of the lawyers and he blasted them about it. And then I won the election two to one. So I’ve had it from white men, black men and society in general as a black woman. But each time, whatever obstacles came up, I just spoke out and would not take anybody getting in my way as it relates to my rights.
Have you always been that way?
I know when I was in college at Florida A&M, and I came home on weekends and one weekend I was flying back and my dad took me to the airport. Some white man that worked out there said, “All right boy, move.” And I said, “Wait a minute, you don’t talk to my daddy like that. He’s old enough to be your grandfather. How dare you? My Dad was older and he said don’t worry. I said, I’m not worried, I’m just not going to accept this. This is totally unacceptable and I’ll die and go to hell before I let him stand here and scold you, totally disrespect the fact that you’re a man and you just happen to be black.
How did your dad react to that?
Well, he knew that at that point there wasn’t anything he could do. So he just let me shout the man down and that’s what I did. And so it’s just been like that. Having grown up and having been born in Lakeland on Memorial Boulevard. It was North Street back then, but it’s now Memorial Boulevard and my dad had a business next door to our house. All the people came to his place, so we met lots of people, black and white, elected officials. I met the Sheriff. Everybody knew Mr. Joyner. The one thing I remember most is one day he came home and he said, “Lock the doors and pull the shades down, the Klan is going to march.” Immediately we did all that and we peeked out the window and I was 5 and I will never forget that I saw the Ku Klux Klan march — and the urgency in his voice — and those men in their white hoods. Shortly thereafter, we moved to Tampa.
Where does your fighting spirit come from? I think you’ve had it all your life.
I was one of three, the middle child, and always liked to talk. My mom went to Bethune-Cookman after we were all born, and she always told me you have to stand up for what you believe in. She always said, “God bless the child who has her own.” She stressed that.
My dad stressed that your word was your bond and you had to respect people. In the Cotton Club, which he owned on Central Avenue, it was the only black establishment that you had to have a coat and tie, and there were tablecloths and there was a restaurant and music and a stage. Some of the people would come in and have a set and play music. Every day when I left Booker T. Washington Junior High School, I would walk back to the Cotton Club. Sometimes we just stayed until the evening shift because we all learned how to operate the bar. I would come sashaying in and the police officers — black and white — because during that time only black police officers could arrest black people in the Central Avenue area — Dad said, “See that man over there? That’s the longshoreman. That’s the garbage man. That’s the lawyer, that’s the doctor. That’s the barber, that’s the tailor. All of them make it possible for all these nice things you enjoy. And don’t you ever forget it. Cause these people see you on your way up and they will see you on your way down.”
So that lesson your father taught you surely served you well as you became an attorney and began serving people. I mean, in essence you were paying those people back for the support they had lent your family.
Yes, because the other thing he said was, “To whom much is given, much is required.” He said, you’ve been given a lot, you’ve been given intellect, you’ve been given a love and friendship and we’ve been given support from the community. He kept me grounded, he kept me from being spoiled. I could have been spoiled, you know, driving the Cadillac to school, shopping at Maas Brothers. But no, no, no, he said cash does not make you better than anybody else. I can hear him right now.
Tell me why this milestone of practicing law for 50 years means so much to you.
At the time I came along, there was rampant discrimination. I was the fifth black woman in the state of Florida. C. Bette Wimbish from St. Petersburg, Bernice Gaines from Jacksonville, Ruben MacNair from Daytona, Gwen Cherry from Miami, who was the first black woman to serve in the legislature, and me. I had to blaze my own trail. There were a few white women lawyers here, not that many, very few. We related as lawyers but our paths were different, our backgrounds were different, so I didn’t have a relationship with them where I could ask how to get through. If anything, I talked to the black men lawyers because I had some situations where I really needed some help. But I couldn’t talk to them about everything, so I had to deal with it myself, and I did.
So now, there’s a diversity of options for black women lawyers. You helped blaze that trail. So, to come full circle, why do we need the ERA if there are more opportunities for women?
The opportunities in that regard have grown immensely, but women are still faced with discrimination. We should not have that uncertainty. We should know this is the law of the land. All of that — unequal pay, gender discrimination — still exists and if we can get it codified in the highest document that regulates this country, then it gives you a sense of relief to know at least I have an opportunity to challenge it if I’m discriminated against.