Thursday Bookshelf: Florida Politics at the end of the Jim Crow Era

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.

18 comments

  1. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    The problem with reapportionment was it put the fate if the state into people with little institutional memory or long-term view of the state.

    By taking power from north Florida where generations were Floridians to Tampa, St Petersburg Miami and Fort Lauderdale where most were from up north the interests of longer term floridians were not met.

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    1. Problem with your argument is that a good chunk of the people residing in the panhandle and big bend actually were born in Alabama or Georgia. For example several governors from that part of the state between 1900 and 1940 were NOT Florida natives but in fact Georgia or Alabama natives.

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  2. When you are capable of something as well written and thoughtful as this analysis here why is it you write so much propaganda for the Democrats?

    Modern conservatives and liberals in this state can agree that Florida had a problem with growth. The ruling pork chop boys from north Florida were not comfortable with social liberalism or economic conservatism. They weren’t comfortable with northern ideas. They were not comfortable with minorities or immigrants. They held the state back.

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  3. Excellent write up !!!

    For me Florida always had a bit of a progressive streak in it as you mentioned Pepper getting elected to the Senate.

    But because of the malapportionment Legislature the rural areas controlled state policy. This did not mean though that they controlled statewide elections.

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  4. Shaharazade · · Reply

    :atrik, a very educational and well written piece. So much in it, I never knew about florida’s political history. Great work I must add…feels familiar. GOP redistricting efforts 2013-2014.

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  5. A few things here.

    I think it is really unfair to attack the northern part of the state as the reason why segregation was in place. This article even points out Broward and Palm Beach County with large Jewish populations and Liberal Democrats did not segregate until very late in the game. Many in North Florida were just echoing the customs and heritage of the South. The racism up north was worse yet your discussion of violence all revolves around Central Florida. Yet somehow rural north Florida voters are to blame for the state not being modernized in your words even though your article contains facts that you have written that refute that very statement. If you hate North Florida and hate Southerners then just come out and say so. If the Yankees came here to civilize us and save the state just say so.

    Segregation was much more the fault of South and Central Florida as it was north Florida. People from the Northern states came to those regions and yet imposed segregation even though they were not Southerners. Had they insisted on the changes the Republicans did after the Civil War, given the feeling of unity after World War II, North Floridians would have listened. But instead they came down and IMPOSED segregation themselves. However your piece places all the blame for Jim Crow and the defiance of North Florida legislators.

    The funny thing is you even played out the issues in south and central Florida while laying blame on the northern part of the state in this article. So it is not like you have glossed over history is that you have written history and then needed a determination based on maybe one paragraph of what you have written in this long-winded piece.

    Educational this piece is but your conclusions are not valid. One person one vote was FORCED by the US Supreme Court but prior to the 1960s the efforts of some reapportion the Legislature like Leroy Collins were ENTIRELY political to reward the south Florida liberals who backed him and in direct violation of the Florida constitution.

    Considering the jump in population in places like Miami, Broward, Tampa, St Petersburg was in the 1940s and 1950s you can understand those from the North of the state, the real Florida in those days to resist giving up political power to Yankees and non-Floridians.

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    1. This article even points out Broward and Palm Beach County with large Jewish populations and Liberal Democrats did not segregate until very late in the game.

      Broward and Palm Beach Counties had very few Jewish-Americans at the time. The vast majority were in Dade. Broward and Palm Beach were very waspish and mostly midwestern Republican.

      Yet somehow rural north Florida voters are to blame for the state not being modernized in your words even though your article contains facts that you have written that refute that very statement. If you hate North Florida and hate Southerners then just come out and say so. If the Yankees came here to civilize us and save the state just say so.

      I am actually much more pro-southern than most liberals and have made the effort for two decades to study and understand southern politics. But the facts are facts. Malapportionment was anti-Democratic and disproportionately benefited North Florida between the Apalachicola River and Gainesville. West Florida, particularly Pensacola which was a large and southern city with a big military presence at the time was also screwed by the system.

      Segregation was much more the fault of South and Central Florida as it was north Florida. People from the Northern states came to those regions and yet imposed segregation even though they were not Southerners. Had they insisted on the changes the Republicans did after the Civil War, given the feeling of unity after World War II, North Floridians would have listened. But instead they came down and IMPOSED segregation themselves. However your piece places all the blame for Jim Crow and the defiance of North Florida legislators.

      Well let’s see, when Yankee Republicans occupied the state they imposed a strict policy of integration including allowing blacks to vote and hold office. That was reversed after the armies left and the Democrats regained control. Now I am not saying reconstruction was perfect…clearly the south was not ready for the mixing of races at the time and the Radical Republicans overreached instead of trying to gradually implement a civil rights program. Idealisitically they were right but in application they messed up. This having been said, it is IMPOSSIBLE to not see the correlation to the Democrats regaining power in the state and the imposition of racist Jim Crow laws.

      One person one vote was FORCED by the US Supreme Court but prior to the 1960s the efforts of some reapportion the Legislature like Leroy Collins were ENTIRELY political to reward the south Florida liberals who backed him and in direct violation of the Florida constitution.

      Collins became Governor because he won the votes of the majority. Yet the majority who elected him in the Democratic Primary held about 20% to 25% of the seats in the legislature while he was Governor. Explain that? The counties that voted for Charley Johns held close to 65% (10% for the others) yet he LOST the election. Collins was COURAGEOUS in the fight against entrenched politicians from the part of the state he grew up in (he was from Tallahassee.)

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    2. So are you saying that Robert King High was not a “real Floridian”?

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  6. Let me also remind the readers of this site that the Republicans like Earl Warren were cynical race baiters back in the day looking for black votes in the cities in because they could never win the south. While Nixon may have imposed a Southern strategy which some liberals claim is racist in the 1950s Nixon was courting blacks and attacking the south. It was only when the south came into play that the Republicans abandoned the blacks. I played this out because I read this altar before talk about how a lot of Republicans in Florida were progressive on the race issue when the Democrats were racist. But this was simply politics. Any respectable Southerner in that era could not vote for the party of Lincoln or the party of Sherman.

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    1. Any respectable Southerner in that era could not vote for the party of Lincoln or the party of Sherman.

      Sherman was mentally ill and should have been institutionalized. But to hold him forever against the Republican Party showed the narrow mindedness of some southerners.

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    2. Really, voters could not vote for a party regarding something that happened 80 years prior? Wow, they must have a hard time grasping onto the issues then.

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  7. […] Thursday bookshelf: Florida politics at the end of the Jim Crow Era, from The Florida Squeeze. Pub. Jan. 16   Read […]

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  8. […] general conservatism otherwise, further complicating the party’s dilemma on the issue. As we discussed in a previous Thursday Bookshelf, Florida’s legislature in the pre-reapportionment days (before the landmark Baker v Carr […]

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  9. […] their general conservatism otherwise, further complicating the party’s dilemma on the issue. As we discussed in a previous Thursday Bookshelf, Florida’s legislature in the pre-reapportionment days (before the landmark Baker v Carr […]

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  10. […] timeless Southern Politics in State and Nation which was published in 1949. As we have discussed in a previous edition of Thursday Bookshelf, racism and segregation as well as the urban/rural split were the overriding factors in Florida […]

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  11. I’m against segregation and mistreatment of anybody, but I’m also Southern to the bone! I despise Northerners and foreigners who move to Florida and wish to change it! Don’t move here and then try and bring your Yankee and foreign customs, cultures, and “We do it this way up North” type of nonsensery here to Florida! Sure, the South did some wrong things, but we don’t need Yankee migration and foreign diversity (perversity) to correct those wrongs! Our Southern speech is being destroyed. Our Southern culture and customs are being eradicated. Our Dixie Land is being overrun by folks who could care less about the state or region they’re moving to. What ever happened to, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”? When I, as a Floridian, visit Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, etc. and some schmuck asks me where I’m from with a Yankee or Spanglish accent all because I have a strong Southern accent, it pisses me off! Especially when you can travel 20 or 30 minutes outside those cities and be surrounded by Southern folks with very noticeable Southern drawls! I usually, say something like, “I’m from Florida and Florida’s in the South! My accent is normal for Florida! It’s me who should be asking you where you’re from since you obviously don’t sound Southern! You’re out of place, not me!” I don’t put up with it from these moronic idiots! If it offends them! Good! I’m sick of these folks anyways! They should all do Florida a big favor and leave!

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  12. […] his 1949 timeless classic, Southern Politics in Nation and State, V.O. Key said Florida was “every man for himself.” Seventy years later, as the state […]

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