Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Florida History

By Douglas C. Lyons

A few years back during my stint as an editorial writer covering the Florida Legislature, a state senator and I were discussing black politics in the state.

The senator, then a member of Miami-Dade County delegation, had a pretty grim assessment about black Floridians living in the Panhandle region.

“Black folk living west of Tallahassee are catching hell,” he said.

I could only nod. My experiences of Florida’s black communities primarily centered around the southern and central parts of the state. At the time, I had never been west of Gadsden County, which borders the Tallahassee area. What little I saw in that county wasn’t exactly idyllic.

Years later, as I turn the pages of the book, Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980 that long-ago conversation in the state capitol office came back in a rush. J. Michael Butler’s book is a brutal assessment of the David-vs.-Goliath struggle in Florida’s Panhandle region. It’s confrontation pitting local black leadership against the overwhelming dominance of the region’s white power structure.

In this case, though, David had no stone, no slingshot and no real help.

The story follows the work of Rev. H.K. Matthews, a local pastor in Pensacola and at the time president the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It starts at a gathering of 500 black residents at the sheriff’s department to protest the police shooting of a black teenager. Despite evidence to the contrary, a grand jury declared the incident ‘justifiable homicide.”

The protest, like the others organized to decry the marginalization of Pensacola’s black residents, had the typical singing of hymns, prayers and chants, including this one led by Matthews: “Two, four, six, eight, who  shall we incarcerate?”

The words were followed by the names of the town’s white civic leaders, including the county sheriff, Royal Untreiner. Usually, the chants would go unanswered by the police presence. This time, however, the response was swift.

Matthews was arrested and later charged with felony extortion. The case went to trial, where an all-white jury heard officers testify that Matthews had said “assassinate” instead of “incarcerate.” The jury found Matthews guilty and a judge ultimately sentenced the minister to five years hard labor.

The rest of the book tells a panful story of a black community’s attempts to overcome daunting odds to achieve some semblance of equality and justice. It’s not pretty. There is no happy ending here.

There are riots at area high schools over symbols of white supremacy. Black leaders get co-opted by the white establishment, and the few gains that do occur are undermined by entrenched local and state politicians.  While Matthews boldly boldly represents the SCLC, he gets little help from his national office, or the NAACP. The fight for civil rights in the Florida Panhandle pales in comparison to the groups’ struggles to remain relevant nationally as civil-right organizations.

To paraphrase that earlier conversation: “Black folk … are catching hell.”

The book is a must read for anyone who is serious about black and white relations in Florida and today’s ongoing struggle of race and social inequality. The book’s general conclusion best describes its overall significance.

“The lessons of the Escambia County movement transcend local, state and even regional context. The story of racial power, privilege, change and continuity is not this community’s alone, for others throughout the United States encountered similar conflicts.” 

To better understand the current racial unrest still smoldering in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., or New Orleans,  consider this read of Pensacola’s past.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Florida’s Black History

By Douglas C. Lyons

I remember my grandfather, James H. Lark, a religious industrious man who believed in both God and the ownership of land. He was very passionate about both.

An evangelist who became a Mennonite bishop and a proud property owner, buying land was tantamount to success, particularly for a Negro making his way amid mid-20th century American when racial segregation was a way of life.

N.D.B. Connolly’s book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida is an eye-opening exploration of the value of being a property owner and how black landowners in Miami survived — and often thrived — even as blacks in general suffered under the harsh laws and norms that made them second-class citizens.

From the inception of Miami’s Colored Town, to the 1960s when racial segregation of Jim Crow gave way to another challenging time for black Miamians — the arrival of Cuban immigrants to South Florida, Connolly methodically examines how black landowners navigated the turbulence of Magic City as it went from wood to concrete, glass and steel.

Connolly’s work is scholarly and objective. Any traces of heroism of black strivers prospering against the white power structure are immediately dashed by the reality of the enduring bond of owning property. That bond often trumped efforts to improve civil rights and black living conditions.

Whether you were black or white, property owners ruled, especially in a state where development is second nature.

Black landowners did well, often as slumlords but still as valued members of the black elite. White landowners did better, particularly those who exploited black tenants who were forced to live in inferior housing. Yet, whenever threatened by government regulation or civic minded individuals seeking to wipe out the slums, black and white property owners stuck together for mutual benefit.

To truly understand the history of the Sunshine State, it’s essential to know the value of land, the rights of property owners and their impact on Florida’s communities. The same can be said for civil rights movement in South Florida and the inequities facing the region’s black and white residents today. Connolly’s book excels in addressing those topics.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of blackinfla.com.

Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Black Florida History

 

By Douglas C. Lyons

I’ve got to commend Ben Green, the author of Before His Time: The Untold Story Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr. The book is a passionate biography about a man whose work for civil rights often goes unrecognized. Green wanted to correct that, and his book is a notable effort to do just that.

51a1qdhxealA native Floridian, Moore suffered the indignations of the Jim Crow South. The 1940s were a tough time for black Floridians, particularly those who lived in small towns like Mims, where Moore lived, worked and raised his family.

An educator in Florida’s segregated public schools, Moore became interested in teaching his students about the power of voting after he read an NAACP  brochure. He soon became the face of the organization in Florida. He organized the NAACP’s state conference and several voting registration drives with the idea to get more blacks to vote.

Moore mastered the art of using the black press to call attention to racial atrocities. He single handedly wrote press releases, letters to white elected officials. He crisscrossed the state raising awareness and money to develop local chapters from Fort Lauderdale to Milton.

It was a quest that drove him to the point where white school officials stripped him and his wife of their teaching jobs, which only led Moore to take on the civil rights work full time. As his stature grew, so did the threats on his life.

It ultimately came to a horrible end when a bomb planted beneath his house exploded on Christmas Day 1951. The bomb killed Moore. His wife, Henriette, died shortly thereafter. The murder was never solved.

Green not only recalls Moore’s life, but paints a lurid picture of the state of race relations in 1940s Florida. It wasn’t pretty, particularly when the book moves into recounting the horrors of the Groveland Boys case, a travesty that pitted Moore against Willis McCall, a southern sheriff that made Birmingham’s Bull Connor look like Officer Friendly.

The book also details the early operations of the Florida NAACP. Moore’s struggles to raise money to keep the state conference going are well documented in the book, as are his battles with the NAACP national office, which wanted Moore out — before the bombing that made Moore a martyr before the nation.

The author also dispels any misconception that authorities failed to take the investigation into Moore’s death seriously. They did, often against long odds.

What is painfully reflected throughout the book is the fact that too many of know nothing about Moore’s contribution to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. Medgar Evers, John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer are recognized icons. Green believes Moore belongs in that company, and he’s right Moore does.

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of blackinfla.com.

 

 

Another Must Read for Any Serious Fan of Florida Black History

By Douglas C. Lyons

No serious fan, student or advocate of black history in the Sunshine State should be without Florida’s Minority Trailblazers: The Men and Women Who Changed the Face of Florida Government. Susan A. MacManus book is a must for anyone who’s serious about the subject —  period, end of story.

51s9w5dvddlDisguised as a reference book, MacManus presents plenty of readable material detailing the lives of the men and women of color who our government. The book offers a wide ethnic diaspora of individuals who broke Florida’s color line and transformed a male-dominated, Democratic-run state into one whose political makeup reflects the modern age.

The bios contain revealing anecdotes that show the tenor of the times as these individuals made history by becoming the “first” to win elective office or gain a coveted appointment to a high-ranking position.

Each appendix contains easy-to-digest red-letter dates of political importance, including the dates, political affiliations of Florida’s Asian, black and Latino elected officials and the events that shaped their involvement in state politics.

MacManus has long been recognized as an astute political scientist in her role as a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida. Her insights into Sunshine State political and election trends are typically on point.

Her research into the lives and motivations of Florida’s minority trailblazers is both must and a much-needed possession to anyone who appreciates the Sunshine State.

 

Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of blackinfla.com.

A Floridian’s Memory of Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune

“As a boy growing up in Daytona, I was of course familiar with how Mary McLeod Bethune started her school and I knew the mission she felt she was fulfilling. Very often she would come to our church, usually on the fifth Sunday night, and she would talk of her dreams for Negro youth. Often she would sing a solo Always the congregation gave her collection for her work …”  — Howard Thurman

 

Source: With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman  Harcourt Brace & Co. 1979 p. 23

Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten