Editors note: Today we begin a series on famous Floridians. We start the series with Bill Baggs the late editor of The Miami News and one of the inspirations for this website.
Bill Baggs is best known today for having his name adorn the State Park that includes the Cape Florida Light, the oldest structure the Greater Miami area. But Baggs is an often-forgotten great Floridian who was taken from the state at all too young an age.
Baggs was born in Atlanta in 1922. Baggs entered journalism after college and became a champion for various causes and political candidates. He died in 1969, aged only 47, but in the twelve years he served as editor of The Miami News, he made a profound impact on southern Florida and the political culture of the state. Baggs is from my vantage point one of the most significant figures in the history of the region.
In 1957, Baggs became the Editor of The News, an evening newspaper that stopped publishing in 1988. The News was Miami’s second paper trailing The Miami Herald in terms of visibility and circulation. During Baggs years as Editor, The News would win four Pulitzer’s including one for consistent reporting that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba during 1962. The paper also won a Pulitzer during Baggs tenure for reporting on the conditions in a Florida migrant labor camp, which helped lead directly to more awareness about the plight of prisoners across the world.
Miami wasn’t a typical southern city in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but it was still in the south. The political environment in Miami was more hospitable to liberal thought – Dade County did support national Democrats and occasionally some Republicans in a state dominated by segregationist southern Democrats. But the city and county also got flooded with Cuban refugees and had to deal with a state government dominated by north Floridians.
As Editor of The News, Baggs carved an independent and progressive path. He advocated the Election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and became a close personal friend of the President. He championed liberal local politicians Dante Fascell, Claude Pepper and Robert King High while pushing an anti-communist agenda and keeping a weary eye to the south on Castro’s Cuba. Beginning in 1959, The News published exposes on Castro’s Cuba and cultivated sources within the CIA and Cuban exile community.
Civil Rights was very unpopular throughout Florida in the early 1960’s, though it was less unpopular in Miami. Baggs openly championed Civil Rights and The News covered the plight of local African-Americans in Miami sympathetically, which was unusual for a southern paper at the time. In a similar vein, Baggs was a strong advocate for senior health care and the Medicare legislation eventually signed by President Lyndon Johnson
Baggs is best known nationally as one of the first leading journalists to publicly oppose American involvement in Vietnam. He interviewed Ho Chi Minh in 1967 in North Vietnam. Baggs also engaged in a peace mission with fellow liberal southern newspaperman, Harry Ashmore of The Arkansas Gazette – the two went to Vietnam in hopes of striking a peace deal in 1968.
Without Baggs, South Florida might be a completely different place. Biscayne National Park exists today largely because of Baggs. In the early 1960’s various proposals to develop the keys in Biscayne Bay commercially were strongly opposed by The News. The most viable proposal was to build a causeway from Key Biscayne (the last of the barrier islands) through the keys of Biscayne Bay to Key Largo. The advocacy of the paper led directly to President Johnson designating The Biscayne National Monument in 1968. It became a National Park in 1980. This prevented any commercial or residential development.
The Everglades Jetport was on the drawing board when Baggs passed away suddenly in 1969. He had rallied The News to question the project and had he lived, no doubt the paper would have played a major role in its eventual defeat.
The southern portion Key Biscayne and Cape Florida remain close to their natural state almost exclusively because of Baggs and The News. The state park, which was established during Baggs lifetime has been renamed in his honor, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.