A brief history of political racism in Florida

Sidney J. Catts - By Bain (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sidney J. Catts – By Bain (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday we discussed the parallels in antisemitic rhetoric between President Trump and President Nixon. Since so much has been made of President Trump’s purported racism, a political history here in Florida is in order. At least a twentieth century history.

In 1916, Sidney Catts was elected Governor of Florida after being denied the Democratic nomination in a recount. Catts secured the nomination of the Prohibition Party and was elected. Catts talked extensively about political & bureaucratic reform and married that rhetoric with overt racism.

Here is an excerpt from Catts inauguration speech:

“Your triumph is no less in this good hour in beautiful Florida, for you have withstood the onslaughts of the county and state political rings, the corporations, the railroads, the fierce opposition of the press and organization of the negro voters of this state  against you and the power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy against you. Yet over all of these the common people of Florida, the everyday cracker people have triumphed.”

Catts rhetoric would foreshadow that of Father Coughlin nationally in the 1930s (Coughlin would replace anti-Catholicism with antisemitism) and that of Huey Long in Louisiana. Populism by this time had given way to the progressive movement, but that largely Midwestern based push was largely absent from Florida politics, particularly in the 1920s as the state exploded with new growth thanks to a land boom.

Florida had its own version of Huey Long in Fuller Warren who was elected Governor in 1948. Warren, a former KKK member spoke out against the Klan in 1948 saying the following:

“The hooded hoodlums and sheeted jerks who paraded the streets of Tallahassee last night made a disgusting and alarming spectacle. These covered cowards who call themselves Klansmen quite obviously have set out to terrorize minority groups in Florida as they have in a near-by state.

Warren counted on strong rural support and ran on a populist platform which ran contrary to the prevailing conservative winds in the Florida Democratic Party at the time. Florida despite the election of Claude Pepper to the US Senate elected far fewer New Dealers than any other southern state in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Florida was the ultimate bastion of the “Bourbon Democrats,” Jeffersonian and Segregationist. They did battle with populists like Warren and liberals like Pepper and generally prevailed.

Warren, an orator of some note publicly took on the entrenched powers in the Democratic Party and Legislature. Thus he elicited opposition and was also accused of some of the same sort of corruption in league with gambling interests that beset the Long faction in Louisiana. Warren’s impeachment was rejected by the full House.

Meanwhile at the time, The Ivy League which is today diverse, multicultural experience was a bastion of white, protestant elite and racist thought.  Contrary to modern narratives, racism was alive and well in the North throughout the 1900’s and sympathy for the “lost cause” of the Confederacy peaked in the 1920”s and 1930’s. The so-called Dunning School of history which grew out of Colombia University in the early 1900’s was leading distributor of reconstructing thought about reconstruction and the Republican Party. Quoting Wikipedia:

The Dunning School refers to a group of historians who shared a historiographical school of thought regarding the Reconstruction period of American history (1865–1877). The Dunning School viewpoint favored the conservative elements (the Redeemers, rich landowners, businessmen, and Northern Democrats) and disparaged the Radical Republicans in the South (a coalition of blacks, Radical Republicans, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags) . The views of the Dunning School dominated scholarly and popular depictions of the era from about 1900 to the 1930s. Adam Fairclough, a British historian whose expertise includes Reconstruction, summarized the Dunningite themes:

All agreed that black suffrage had been a political blunder and that the Republican state governments in the South that rested upon black votes had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive. The sympathies of the “Dunningite” historians lay with the white Southerners who resisted Congressional Reconstruction: whites who, organizing under the banner of the Conservative or Democratic Party, used legal opposition and extralegal violence to oust the Republicans from state power. Although “Dunningite” historians did not necessarily endorse those extralegal methods, they did tend to palliate them. From start to finish, they argued, Congressional Reconstruction—often dubbed “Radical Reconstruction”—lacked political wisdom and legitimacy.

It can be said that this “intellectual” support for racism and revisionism with regards to reconstruction led indirectly to lynchings and deaths of African-Americans. Backed by “scholars,” racism was suddenly “sophisticated. The Bourbon Democrats of Florida were adherents of the Dunning School and used the levers of power to institutionalize racism and revisionism about the Reconstruction period and intent of the Republican Party in Florida. Black suffrage that led to election of Republicans in Florida had been a mistake (and corrupt) goes the Dunning School of thought, and thus Ivy League intellectuals were justifying the racism and violence pushed by the ruling Bourbon wing of the Democrats in Florida.
Florida not so coincidentally had the highest number of lynchings per capita in the nation between 1900 and 1950. In addition to the infamous Rosewood Massacre lynchings and race-based killings that were tacitly supported by elected officials and law enforcement took place all over the state.  Florida’s Democratic Party was a “white club” which used intellectual arguments to exclude African-American and Mulatto participation in the party. The Republican Party which from the Reconstruction era into the early 1900’s provided a landing place for the few African-Americans who had not been disenfranchised shifted toward the same sorts of policies as the Democrats after publication of many Dunning School influenced texts.
Professors at Florida’s State Universities produced revisionist reconstruction histories in mass that were based on Dunning School thinking. Elected Democrats then turned around and cited these “academic studies,” when forced to defend the state’s policies. Some elected Democrats like the infamous Willis V. McCall, the Lake County Sheriff who was in the 1950s the best known local enforcement officer in the state were able to sanction killing by working with the Ku Klux Klan. McCall had done so on the Groveland Case and the murder of Harry T. Moore. McCall was in many ways more powerful than anyone in the state. His prisons probably were the inspiration
The record on race relations Florida has accumulated was shameful and among the worst in the nation. But in many ways both southern and northern intellectuals were to blame for at least some of it. The Dunning School was used to justify violence and equate any black electoral participation with “corruption.”

One of the darkest episodes in Florida’s history, the murder of NAACP leader Harry T. Moore. In 1951 when Moore was murdered in Mims, local Democrats in Lake, Orange and Brevard County were not only segregationists but were sympathetic to hoodlums in the Ku Klux Klan. Even worse yet was the infamous Willis V. McCall, the Lake County Sheriff who was in the 1950s the best known local enforcement officer in the state, more powerful than Governors in some ways and a close ally of Klan. McCall was national figure of some stature, and cast a very negative image on Florida, a state that was even more dependent on tourism at that point in time.

PBS  produced a documentary called Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore  which contained a whole section on Moore. Under Moore’s leadership African-American registration rose 31% in Florida between World War II and the 1950 election. But Florida in the McCarthy era was as reactionary a state as any in the union. The 1950 election saw Senator Claude Pepper, one of the leading liberals in the country defeated by Ed Ball’s coalition of business groups and Governor Fuller Warren, a populist (and a former Klan member himself) survived several impeachment attempts as he tried to move the state forward economically. (Warren was a classic southern populist of the day- racist to his core at least rhetorically while being for the “little guy,” meaning poor whites. This caused problems with the established order.)

Moore’s involvement in a number of high profile cases including the “Groveland Four” case led to his targeting by the state’s political hierarchy.  The Groveland Case became an international event with the Soviet Union exploiting it for propaganda purposes. While Moore’s death on Christmas Night 1951 was thought to be linked to the Groveland case, the FBI which under J. Edgar Hoover tended to be hostile to Civil Rights yet very aggressive in targeting domestic terrorism (hence, Hoover’s simultaneous harassment of Martin Luther King AND the Ku Klux Klan) did an extensive investigation which could not link McCall and the Lake County Klan.

The state’s Democratic Party establishment wanted to sweep the entire episode under the rug. Despite efforts by African-American leaders to reopen the case time and again, the Democrats who ran FDLE and the Attorney General’s office through the years avoided the subject. For newer political activists, it may come as a surprise but a large part of the Democratic Party’s establishment in the 1990’s in the state was still tied to areas of Florida where racial wounds had not been healed. It should also be noted at the time that the I-4 corridor areas of the state were more Republican than they are today, meaning Democrats needed to win in the Big Bend and Panhandle, as well as the rural counties in the middle of the state to be successful statewide. This also played a role in the votes on Rosewood and Pitts and Lee compensation that were racially charged issues in the 1990’s where more Democrats were in opposition than Republicans. Moore’s case was finally reopened by Attorney General Charlie Crist in 2003 – Crist was then a Republican.

A few years later, General Sumter Lowry whose philanthropy helped Tampa grow into a major city during the 1950’s, but whose views on segregation were the most extreme of the era ran twice for Governor. Lowry ran in 1956 exclusively on the race issue vowing never to accept black children into white schools and pledging to emulate Virginia’s “massive resistance” effort. Thankfully, Lowry was defeated in the Democratic Primary by Governor Leroy Collins the son of a Tallahassee grocer and one of the greatest Floridians ever. Lowry tried again in 1960 and attempted to make the entire Gubernatorial election about “state sovereignty,” and “freedom of free association”.  Lowry lost, but only after pushing the eventual winner Ferris Bryant towards his positions.

During the Civil Rights Movement,  Martin Luther King Jr. visited St Augustine in 1964 at the beginning of the 400th anniversary celebrations of St Augustine’s formal founding.

The oldest city in what is now the United States provided the backdrop for a tense summer in 1964. Florida under the leadership of Governor Ferris Bryant was defiant in the civil rights era.  Bryant who followed the visionary Leroy Collins as Governor was a decided step back for the Florida. The Florida Legislature of the early 1960s was also especially hostile to Civil Rights, though that could entirely be blamed on the fact that reapportionment that should have followed the Baker v. Carr decision was put off until 1968 and thus the legislature was still disproportionately rural, Democratic and conservative- Jeffersonian and Segregationist.

In 1963, the NAACP targeted St Augustine as a community which could be used a powerful symbol of segregation in the south. The city  was about to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its birth.

Sit ins began at St Augustine lunch counters in 1963 much as they had in Greensboro and other southern cities a few years earlier. Unlike the relative enlightenment of the upper south, much of Florida was a Ku Klux Klan hotbed and violence ensued. The Democratic Party in St Johns County was also dominated by segregationist sentiment, as well as a desire to hold onto power and so local political leadership was unified against the movement. Under this pressure of violence, local African Americans began to rethink their strategy and the demonstrations began to die out.

At this point Martin Luther King entered the picture.  St Augustine became the focus of King’s movement for the long hot summer of 1964.After King targeted St Augustine’s beach and downtown for integration, violence from local white citizens once again flared up. The Florida Legislature in its special report issued during the 1965 Legislative session blamed black Muslims from Jacksonville and “northern agitators” for the violence.

However, subsequent investigations have revealed that the local white population had violent elements and that the local political leadership including the St John’s County Sheriff’s office (which was singled out for praise in the Legislative report) were in fact less than even handed. The situation in St Augustine was tense and violence against the civil right demonstrators had a similar galvanizing affect on passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the House (Senate passage would come later after a filibuster which included Florida Senators George Smathers and Spessard Holland was broken) that the Selma incidents would a year later on passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965.

A Federal Court sided with the demonstrators after local officials prohibited them from organizing and machining at night. Local law enforcement claimed that they could protect the demonstrators only during the day. After the court order Governor Bryant, stated that he would stand on his constitutional rights as the Governor of Florida and would reject the court order. The state officially in its 1965 report blamed the Court order on lawyers from “New York and Chicago.” Florida may have been on the periphery of the civil rights revolution prior to 1964, but state officials had learned to mimic the talking points of other southern leaders like Ross Barnett, James Patterson and George Wallace.

The beach integration efforts were thwarted by the local police who left several demonstrators in the water to potentially drown. One of the staging grounds for the summer was the Monson Motel, which was open to whites only.  There some white and black civil rights supporters went for a swim together  and the motel’s owner sought to intimidate the swimmers by pouring acid in the pool. Dr King was also arrested for appearing on the motel’s premises. The Monson was eventually torn down and replaced by a Hilton. One wonders if this was done to avoid the embarrassment this hotel represented on an otherwise great and historic city, St Augustine.

St Augustine is one of the great historic cities in America. With that backdrop it provided a powerful symbol for Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. The events of the Summer of 1964 were an embarrassment for the state of Florida. The hostility Dr. King faced and the strength of the local Klan spoke volumes as to the state’s deep south mentality despite being historically very different from the aristocratic plantation driven deep south. Thankfully Dr. King’s efforts were not in vain and today Florida elects three African-Americans to congress and gave its electoral votes to an African-American in the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections.

The history of racism and race-baiting in Florida is extensive – it did not start with Donald Trump and sadly likely won’t end with him either.

4 comments

  1. […] Source: A brief history of political racism in Florida | The Florida Squeeze […]

  2. I really appreciate this history of the state of Florida. For anyone interested, I wrote a blog article on St. Augustine a few years back before my husband and I moved here from Michigan. It’s an outsider perspective on my discovery of the civil rights history there and how it contrasts with the celebration of the older history of the city. The link is below.

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