By Douglas C. Lyons
On May 25, 1949, Virgil D. Hawkins filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida. His goal? Hawkins wanted to attend the University of Florida Law School, a school that barred blacks. Hawkins had waited a long time. He was 41 years old son of an Opahumpka preacher and a Bethune Cookman College faculty member at the time of the lawsuit.
Hawkins was qualified; state officials all but admitted that. Racial segregation, however, dies hard. Even though the university’s stand drew nationwide scorn, the Florida Supreme Court snubbed its nose at a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Hawkins should be admitted to the law school.
Hawkins had no idea of the sacrifice he would make to integrate the state’s only public law school. To sidestep the High Court and allow black students to attend the UF law school, state officials opened a law school at Florida A&M College, the state’s all-black public college. They urged Hawkins to apply there. He refused.
In 1958, state officials agreed to a settlement that opened the law school’s admission policies to all Florida residents — except one. The settlement would go into effect only after Hawkins promised never to enroll. Hawkins eventually earned his law degree from a college in New England, not UF.
The ‘So What?!’ Significance: Let’s give Virgil Hawkins credit. He had the “balls” to file a lawsuit against the state of Florida and stuck with it to the point where victory seemed obtainable, only to be dashed by a “settlement” that kicked him to the curb. He put other black aspirants ahead of his own desire to attend Florida’s premiere law school. Sounds like a sacrifice for the greater good.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.
Source: Virgil Hawkins Stood Up to State 50 Years Ago, by Ramsey Campbell Orlando Sentinel May 23, 1999
Photo Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory