Ruth: Artiles' slurs a reminder of Florida's racist past

Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami
Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami
Published April 19, 2017

You could make a case that Florida state Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Foghorn Leghorn, has performed a perverse public service reminding us that racist undertones still flow freely throughout the corridors of power in Tallahassee.

Apparently Artiles hoisting a few at the hoity-toity Governors Club earlier this week when he happened to run into two black Democratic colleagues, Sens. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale.

Instead of a hail and hearty greeting, Artiles decided to channel his inner Mel Gibson. According to the Miami Herald's Patricia Mazzei, a fulminating Artiles unleashed a torrent of invective toward Gibson and Thurston, calling one of the lawmakers a "f--- a------" as well as a "b----," not to mention a "girl." Good grief, Artiles temper tantrum took up so many dashes, this discourse started to look like a Morris Code of misogynistic malediction.

Alas Artiles wasn't quite done in establishing his bona fides as the Jesse Helms of Tallahassee, telling Gibson and Thurston that Republican Florida Senate President Joe Negron only rose to his powerful position because of "six n------" in the GOP caucus who elected him.

This was odd. Either Artiles can't count, or he has the observational skills of a newt, since there are no black Republican members of the Florida Senate. And none of the six Democrats in the upper chamber supported Negron.

Of course once Artiles racially-fueled outburst went public the now chastened elected public official apologized to Gibson and Thurston on the Senate floor, noting he regretted "the incident profusely." Well, when one has just exposed oneself as a narrow-minded bigot there isn't much choice but to throw oneself on the altar of regret.

It is never a good idea for a buffoonish pol to start tossing around the N-word. But Artiles timing was especially jaw-dropping.

For Artiles channeled his inner-David Duke the very same week the Florida Legislature moved closer to issuing a formal apology and an exoneration of the Groveland Four, a quartet of black men who in 1949 were wrongly accused of rape and tortured by the racist Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.

One of the accused men, Ernest Thomas was killed by Madison County law enforcement after a brief escape. McCall attempted to murder two others, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, while transporting the handcuffed men in his car. Shepherd died. Irvin survived after pretending to be dead. A fourth, Charles Greenlee, was eventually paroled and died in 2012.

The case, which the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson described as "one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice," was thoroughly examined by author Gilbert King in his 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning book "Devil In The Grove." Artiles ought to read it.

Because of its image as a mouse-eared tourist mecca, ripe with lush beaches and everyone singing "Margaritaville" all day long, the national news media often rejects Florida as a "Deep South" state. But it is. See; Artiles, Frank.

According to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, from 1880 to 1940, Florida lead the nation in per capita lynchings. Or put another way, for every 1,250 black people in the state, one was lynched.

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Florida has a dark, violent history of bigotry, including the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. Harry T. Moore, the founder of the first Florida branch of the NAACP, who was also instrumental in seeking justice in the Groveland Four case, was assassinated in 1951.

Let us not forget the massive racist, treasonous Confederate Flag that still flaps away at the intersection of I-4 and I-75 in Tampa.

And then there was venal Willis McCall, the poster child of Florida's racist legacy.

If you are going to serve in the Florida Legislature shouldn't you have a better understanding of the state's checkered past when it comes to matters of race than a bumptious, impetuous state senator haplessly exhibited this week?

There's some speculation when Artiles uttered his racial slur he was referring to a group of six white Republicans in the Senate caucus who favored Negron over Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater. So in Artiles' muddled mind the worst invective he could summon to criticize political opponents was the N-word?

For all the partisan political bickering over policy issues legislative bodies are still supposed to collegial.

But if you are among the six black Democrats in the Florida Senate how do you look across the chamber at Frank Artiles with any modicum of respect, much less trust?

It can't be easy. It never is. This is "Deep South" Florida, after all.