If you want to gain any sort of understanding of how Florida shifted from rural deep south state in the 1920s and 1930s towards urban toward enlightened mega-state in the 1970s two must read classic books about southern politics are required. First is V.O. Key Jr’s classic Southern Politics: In State and Nation, written back in 1949 and University of Georgia professor Numan V. Bartley’s The Rise of Massive Resistance written in 1969.
Buy V.O. Key Jr.’s Southern Politics in State and Nation
Writing a year before the 1950 US Senate Primary where George Smathers demagoguery in the Democratic Primary ousted Claude Pepper, the most liberal Senator from a former Confederate state Key felt that there was a loose connection between voters and elected officials, something that was apparent when Pepper lost a year later despite serving with distinction.
Key also understood that the rural vote unlike every other southern state was becoming critical in Florida elections. In 1949, the south was still largely rural, but Florida was rapidly urbanizing. Still as Bartley’s book written 20 years later when Florida was the most urban state in the country outside the northeast or Pacific Coast discusses, rural politicians from the northern part of the state used districting as a way to continue controlling the legislature and statewide policy despite the shift of votes to urban areas.
Overall, Key was absolutely right about Florida. He felt even in the 1940s after a succession of Governors from ruralish areas that the overall vote was shifting towards the urban areas. Miami and Jacksonville were already large cities by 1949 while Tampa and St Petersburg were growing rapidly enough to impact Florida politics in the next decade.
In his analysis Key goes to great lengths to show how Democratic primaries (which were essentially general elections in Florida prior to the 1960s) were usually won by regional votes. Multiple Democrats would run for a statewide position, which caused a split in the vote, which would usually favor specific regions. Since the Democratic Primary was limited to white voters at the time African-Americans from voting, north Florida counties controlled the legislature electorally until 1968, when reapportionment thanks of the Florida Constitution forever shifted influence in statewide elections from rural north Florida to urban Florida. The Baker v Carr Supreme Court decision forced Florida to reallocate legislative seats based on population. Many efforts had been undertaken prior to the 1960s to do so mostly by urban legislators and Governor Leroy Collins whose political base was in the urban parts of the state. But Collins was unsuccessful and in 1962 Dade County with nearly a third of the state’s population had the same representation in the State House as Lafayette County with only a two thousand residents.
As we stated above Florida was by 1950 the most urban and cosmopolitan state in the South. By 1970, Florida in many ways resembled a northern state or at least in many areas where Republicans were beginning to dominate electorally. But throughout much of the state, even urban areas Old South norms still prevailed. Bartley’s definitive 1969 work demonstrated that Florida had a more violent streak and more organized Democratic Party based resistance to integration and Civil Rights than Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas thanks to the control North Florida had over both the party and the Legislature. Still Florida did better than the five deep south states and Virginia, where “Massive Resistance” as term and practice actually originated. Bartley passed away in 2004 just months after Georgia Democrat Zell Miller, who spent much of his political career as a liberal took advantage of southern trends to publish A National Party no More and speak at the Republican National Convention.
Buy Numan V. Bartley’s The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South During the 1950s
The appointing of former California (progressive) Republican Governor Earl Warren as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court changed the face of southern politics. Warren broke a court deadlock on race issues thanks to the previous appointment of several southerners to the court by Democratic Presidents. The Chief Justice used his political skills to force his fellow justices to unanimously issue the Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954 that outlawed desegregation in public schools but in the south resistance sprung up. Florida was no exception and the state was the last in the nation to fully integrate its public schools and universities.
As Bartley describes, Sumter Lowry’s “Federation for Constitutional Government,” was a major instrument of massive resistance in Florida. State Representative Prentice Pruitt (D-Monticello) took on a leadership role becoming the groups official lobbyist after leaving the House in 1956 and worked closely with his former colleagues to push measures such as interposition (which would mean state laws in favor of segregation would supersede federal desegregation laws) in an effort to shut down all of Florida’s public schools while giving stipends (what we would call vouchers today) to white students so they could attend newly opened “segregation academies” throughout the state. The later measure passed but was vetoed by Governor LeRoy Collins.
Pruitt then lobbied for a piece of legislation reacting to the Little Rock crisis and the intervention of President Eisenhower in that matter which automatically closed a school if Federal Troops came to integrate the school. Collins allowed this to become law without his signature. Collins also strongly criticized the interposition resolution but could not do anything about it as it was a legislative resolution and probably would have seen an override of his veto anyhow, had it been a binding piece of legislation.
Senate President Charley Johns (D-Starke) had been acting Governor when the Brown decision came down because Dan McCarty (D-Fort Pierce and the first governor from south of Orlando) had passed away. Johns, a reactionary conservative ran for a full term in his own right but was defeated by the moderate Collins in the 1954 Democratic Primary largely thanks to the votes in Dade and Broward counties. Returning to the Senate, Johns became one of the leaders of Massive Resistance and was appointed the head of committee on “state sovereignty.”
The Johns Committee worked with former House Un-American Activities Committee Chief Investigator J.B. Matthews to find links between the NAACP and Communists. The Committee was not able to find the links though they did label the “NAACP” subversive because of established links with organized labor.
Florida was one of only two states to hold a special session in wake of Little Rock. The hope of Governor Collins was that reapportionment of the legislature which disproportionately put power in the hands of rural, reactionary forced could be undertaken and urban areas could gain more representation. But Attorney General Richard Ervin demanded publicly that the Special Session deal with Little Rock and maintaining segregation. Legislators responded to Ervin’s cue and pushed more dangerous anti-integration legislation. Ervin himself was from Carabelle and as a Big-Bend area Democrat he was publicly very pro-segregation but privately had authored a number of briefs to school districts and the US Supreme Court mapping out Florida’s compliance with the decision. However, most local school boards had no intention of integrating. Ervin however does deserve a lot of credit in his private stands as an accomplished attorney even though publicly the political winds demanded another posture.
By 1960, despite having six years to comply with the Brown ruling, only liberal and urban Dade County had integrated its school system (Miami by 1960 was the most northern city in the south). Florida became legendary for forcing the Justice Department to sue school districts one by one to integrate. It was not until W. George Allen’s lawsuit against the Broward School District in 1969, that Broward and Palm Beach were finally forced to integrate, and were the last two school districts in the state to do so, when the Federal Court ordered remaining school districts must integrate “at once” since it had been 15 years since the Brown decision. This came three years after Broward County had cleverly redistricted its schools to prevent integration. Palm Beach copied Broward’s lead and did the same.
Ku Klux Klan activity in Florida has peaked in the 1920s but saw a revival in the late 1940s and 1950s abetted by local officials in Central Florida. Orange, Lake and Brevard Counties were the biggest hotbeds of Klan activity. The murder of Harry T. Moore in 1951 was one of the most vivid examples of local law enforcement in Central Florida aiding the Klan in terror.
By 1970, when Reubin Askew was elected Governor Florida had become a different kind of southern state. But it took lots of hard work from many courageous people.