50th Anniversary of MLK Jr. Death: A history of political racism in Florida from 1916 onward

By Mainstreetmark – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15624328

This week in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King we will be re-running some select pieces on Civil Rights that we have featured in the five plus years this site has been publishing. The first is a rerun of a 2017 piece.

Editors note: With the recent legislative discussion of the Groveland case and a potential state apology for the verdict we decided to combine several pieces over the years from TFS with some new material to create this narrative. It also seems an apt time to discuss this history in the United States under Donald Trump. This narrative begins with the election of 1916, a hundred years before the election of Donald J. Trump and during the Woodrow Wilson administration – Wilson, a progressive and a Democrat who did much good for this country was also arguably the single most racist President we had – a southerner and a man of his times, Wilson’s “progressiveness” differed from that of Republicans Theodore Roosevelt on Robert LaFollette in few ways other than race where the GOP was inclusive by the standard of the day and the Democrats, a party anchored in the south was not. 

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. The same day Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat who had screened the pro- Ku Klux Klan film “Birth of a Nation” at the White House and seemingly had endorsed it’s skewed version of history was reelected as President. In 1912, Wilson had won because the GOP was split between conservatives under William Howard Taft and liberals/progressives under Teddy Roosevelt. Again this time Wilson, eeked out a win and the same day Catts was elected Governor of Florida.

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. While in jail Dr. King phoned a Rabbi friend in New Jersey who organized to that point the largest protest of American Rabbis in history – The Rabbis explained their reasoning for descending on St Augustine here.  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.

Just a few years later in 1968, Alabama’s Democratic former Governor George Wallace who had become a national figure with his “stand in the schoolhouse door” ran for President on the ticket of the “American Independent Party.” The candidacy despite coded words like “crime,” “law breakers,” and “patriotism” was about one thing- race. Wallace had been a populist earlier in his career and had in fact been considered a liberal on race in Alabama. But after losing the 1958 Democratic Primary for Governor he vowed to never be beaten on the issue again.
As Governor of Alabama, Wallace became the leading national opponent of President Johnson’s Civil Rights program connecting with the public in a way the old Senate dinosaurs who fought to protect the “southern way of life” through dilatory legislative tactics had failed.
Wallace obviously should have had some cross-border appeal but his showing in Florida was deeply disturbing. Wallace won the majority of Florida counties and despite Richard Nixon’s victory in the state, he needed to run up big vote totals in urban centers, most importantly St Petersburg, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale to carry the state.
Democratic nominee, liberal Hubert Humphrey carried Dade County, the most populated county in the southeast at the time by a very wide margin but otherwise only carried sparsely populated Monroe (the Keys) and college dominated Alachua, both by small margins. Still the big numbers in Dade were enough to give Humphrey more statewide votes than Wallace who had won 34 Florida counties, including every county north of Gainesville both to the east and west as well as Dixie oriented counties of Okeechobee, Glades, Hardee, DeSoto, Polk and Sumter in the state’s interior. At the time Dade had close to 1/4 of Florida’s voters, and Miami was at the time more like a northeastern city than a Southern or Midwestern one.
The same day the racial backlash claimed the political career of a great Floridian, Leroy Collins. Collins was defeated by Ed Gurney for US Senate, giving the state its first Republican Senator since the carpetbagger governments of  the Reconstruction era. Gurney was an embarrassment for this state and the country as a whole, but we’ll save a discussion about him for another time. Collins had been a  mild segregationist as Governor (every  elected Florida Democrat at the time was a segregationist- it was a requirement to win the Democratic nomination for any office in the state) but had resisted attempts by the legislature to shut down Florida’s public schools rather than admitting black students and had been instrumental in trying to negotiate a settlement at Selma in 1965. Collins was seen by most around the south as the most liberal chief executive on the race issue, in the 1950’s. Collins fought the legislature and worked hard for redistricting to give more power to urban areas.
In advance of the election, pictures of Collins with the recently murdered Martin Luther King Jr, circulated across the state leading to Gurney gaining an estimated half of the registered Democrats voting for him.
Gurney was a reactionary conservative from Brevard County (which became Republican during the space program boom of the early 1960s) and would later go onto great infamy with personal scandal and his pathetic defense of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate Scandal. But again, we will save a full discussion of Gurney for another time.
Collins efforts to make Florida a modern state were used against him by Gurney and the Republicans. The son of a Tallahassee grocer who was a moderate Governor from 1954 to 1960, he was beat badly in rural areas by a Maine born, Harvard educated carpetbagger. Half the state’s Democrats mostly native southerners voted for a carpetbagger Republican, in a grand reversal of history. The irony of ironies in an election where George Wallace carried 29% of the statewide vote carrying every county north of Gainesville, and in all of those counties Gurney won, becoming the first Republican after Reconstruction ever to carry many of them for any office. Richard Nixon won Florida, just as he had in 1960, but this time the combined Wallace/Nixon (conservative) vote was close to 70% of Florida’s electorate. In 1968, registered Democrats still represented the vast majority of voters in the state (69% to 23% with the rest being unaffiliated).
Collins won (Miami) Dade by a nearly 2 to 1 margin and as noted above that was then nearly 1/4 of the state’s vote. But in the rest of the state, the former Governor whose legend would only grow in future years was beaten badly, carrying just Alachua, Monroe and Hillsborough counties. Collins great sins were as follows:
  • He had actively tried to reapportion the legislature in the 1950’s when he was Governor away from the Pork Chop Gang and towards a more equatable distribution of seats.
  • Instead of rabble-rousing like Governors of Mississippi and Alabama would do about race, he steered a moderate course as Governor. One that defended segregation in the most genteel of ways.
  • He had worked hard to improve public works projects in urban areas where the state was looking to attract business from the north.
  • Selma: As the head of the Community Relations Service under President Lyndon Johnson he had played a critical role in diffusing the tensions and allowing the march to continue.

Collins was one of the greatest Floridians of the 20th Century. His leadership contributed mightily to Florida not falling into the trap of the five Deep South )(George, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina) states who at various times had such demagogic leadership about race that northern businesses stayed far away from those states. In the 1970’s, when Florida emerged as a leading progressive light in the Sun Belt and a “Golden Age” of politics emerged, it was thanks in large part of the vision and courage Collins had exhibited in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Collins electoral career ended in 1968, but his contributions to the state continue to this day.

In the 1970’s Florida was a far more urban state than it had been even in Warren’s era.  By 1960, Florida had become the most urban state in the south and by 1980 it was one of the most urban states in the county. The Civil Rights movement which King had led and Collins had been associated with shifted to large urban areas and the excesses of the political class and law enforcement also shifted to big cities.  Keep in mind prior to the 1970’s violence in southern cities was almost always initiated by whites towards blacks, such as the infamous 1866 Memphis riots. It was not just in the rural south where whites exhibited violence towards blacks.

In 1980, the City of Miami erupted with the worst urban riots in the United States since the Watts riots of 1965. But what led to these riots was an unjust “not-guilty” verdict in the trial of several police officers accused of killing Arthur McDuffie. The trial which was moved from Miami to Tampa featured an all-male and all-white jury. Below is a detailed look back at the events that led to the riots including a look at the history of Overtown BEFORE the building of I-95 destroyed the once vibrant African-American neighborhood.

In 1989, Overtown erupted thanks to the murder of young black motorcyclist. At the time I was a 9th grader in Coral Springs and remember every detail of the coverage of these riots vividly. Despite the “liberalism” of the news media a presumption was made that African-American protests that eventually spread to Liberty City and Cocount Grove was somehow unjust. Riots are never a good remedy for these sorts of excesses, but racially polarized Miami where the McDuffie and Overtown disturbances served as bookends for a decade where African-Americans were repeatedly treated as third class citizens in a city and county which was incredibly corrupt and subsisting largely on drug money.

Rioting takes places when a group of people are completely disaffected from the political process and societies benefits. Between 1980 and 1990, portions of the city of Miami erupted violently on four different occasions. This happened because of arrogance, indifference and corruption that plagued the city and Dade County throughout the decade.

In 1996, days before the Vice Presidential debate was due to occur in St Petersburg, the city erupted thanks to another case of law enforcement excess. The responsible officers were eventually inexplicably cleared of all charges and the city erupted again.

The capture of the Florida House by the Republicans less than a month after these urban disturbances led directly to more guns on the streets in Florida and quite possibly to more white on black violence in the state. The Trayvon Martin case crystallized the issue for many. George Zimmerman,  a troubled and an untrained “officer of the law” used the worst types of racial stereotyping to act against young Martin. But his actions were not terribly different than what trained officers of the law had done in this state on repeated occasions since 1980.

Florida is nowhere near racial harmony. Quite honestly this is not a partisan issue. When Charlie Crist was a Republican he was better on actually acting on Civil Rights issues than the vast majority of white Democrats in this state. Many Democrats of the era were forced to chase votes among conservative whites in the Panhandle due the emergence of a “Republican horseshoe” from Naples through Tampa, Orlando and Brevard County down toward Palm Beach. This forced Democrats to marry heavy majorities in Dade and Broward counties with as many votes as possible from the conservative Panhandle to win statewide.   Despite the progress in the state one issue where the GOP has really allowed racism to take hold is with the push for more guns and legislation like “Stand Your Ground.”  In time let us hope we can all work together to change things in this state in a way where everybody feels equal and lives in harmony.

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. The last 100 years proves that.

One comment

  1. Excellent history, Kartik.

    For years, we visited my sister in St. Augustine and didn’t know about the city’s importance during the Civil Rights Era. They don’t exactly celebrate it! In 2014, the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida held its annual convention in St. Augustine and the organizers arranged a private civil rights trolley tour for us. It was so informative! Many of the historical sites have markers funded by Northup Grumman because the city wouldn’t pay for them. I highly recommend doing this tour if you ever visit the St. Augustine.


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