Civil rights in Miami

Farewell to a Classmate

My classmate at Morehouse College, Julian Bond died this past Saturday. We met at Morehouse when we were both seventeen years old. We were from totally different backgrounds. My dad was a longshoreman, his was a college president. We were not friends but classmates in a small class of fewer than 150 students so of course, we all knew each other. Julian was lanky, suave, smooth and handsome and he was often not in class. I was neither, lanky, suave, smooth or handsome and I was always in class. Julian was brilliant but his interests was in civil rights. He carried about a C average despite being one of the brightest students at Morehouse at the time. His activism would lead him to drop out of college although he returned to Morehouse in 1971 to complete his degree. His accomplishments have been well touted since his death; student activist, first black to serve in the Georgia House and Senate since Reconstruction, first black congressman from Georgia since the same period. He was a founder of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) the most activist of the civil rights organizations. Julian was also a national NAACP leader and one of the founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was an advocate for the poor and an enemy of racism all of his adult life. The president was right to call him “a hero.

Julian Bond convinced me to participate in just one civil rights demonstration in Atlanta in 1960. It was a march to city hall. I held back from participating in marches because I doubted my ability to remain non-violent. I could stand being called a nigger. I could stand being pushed around a little for the cause but if some snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing, straggly-haired, no- teeth, white son of a bitch spat on me, there was going to be war. So I tended to stay on campus. But there was Julian rushing from dorm to dorm asking for marchers and I agreed to go that day. Fortunately no snuff dipping, tobacco-chewing, straggly-haired, no teeth, white son of a bitch spat on me that day and that ended my active participation in civil rights marches. Julian kept marching for another sixty years. He is probably in heaven now trying to organize the angels for God only knows what purpose.

So long classmate. Job well done! 

Miami’s Booker T. Washington Senior High School (1927)

Booker T. Washington Senior High School was the first high school for African American students in Miami. The original building was located at Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street. Its construction started in 1926, however, because of the hurricane that hit South Florida in September of that year, the almost-completed structure was severely damaged. The school’s grand opening was held in February 1927. Prior to the school’s opening black children only received an education, public or private, through the eighth grade. Parents either sent their older children to Jacksonville, Daytona, or out-of-state boarding schools to receive higher education. Many Bahamian parents sent their older children to Nassau to be educated beyond the eight grade. Booker T. became competitive with Stanton and Jones, the two other great black high schools in Florida during the Jim Crow era. Although most black high schools from the segregation era have been demolished or downgraded to middle schools, these three schools are still in operation. Booker T.’s colors are orange and black.These were the largest black public schools that were built by Florida. Despite the Jim Crow conditions under which they existed, they, and other black high schools in the state, including Matthew W. Gilbert in Jacksonville, prepared the descendants of slaves for the twentieth century and in so doing, produced thousands of black doctors, attorneys, preachers, nurses, businessmen, and most important, many thousands of black educators.

Crandon Park

When Dade County refused during World War Two to allow the United States Navy to teach black sailors to swim at Crandon Park while allowing white sailors to be trained there the county allowed the navy to use Virginia Key for black sailors. After the war local blacks who were not allowed to use county beaches, demanded that Virginia Key be kept as a colored beach. The county refused. On May 9, 1945 a group of blacks led by Father Theodore Gibson of Christ Church in Coconut Grove staged a wade-in at the county’s Baker’s Haulover Beach for whites only. On June 6, 1945 the county announced that it was pleased to let the public know that Virginia Key would be opened as a colored beach. This civil rights demonstration in Miami predated the start of the modern civil rights movement by students in North Carolina by more than a decade. This is the beach where I swam as a boy in the 1950’s. On weekends some times police cars would be parked across the highway to Crandon Park to prevent blacks from going there. [1]Florida Archives \ see page 161 in Black Miami in the Twentieth Century

Entertainer Jackie Gleason

Florida began the long, and yet to be completed, march towards racial parity in the state in the late 1940s with the preliminaries of the civil rights movement occurring in pockets across Florida, often with black veterans leading the efforts. These pre-civil- rights- era activities primarily involved agitations about voting rights, black access to public facilities, jobs, and anti-lynching efforts. The civil rights movement in Florida was influenced by the changing demographics of the state following the Second World War, as more and more white Northerners settled in the state. After air conditioning became generally available, making year-round life in Florida a comfortable possibility, the white population of the state soared. Florida also got national exposure on television as mega-entertainers, such as Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason aired their variety shows live from Miami Beach. Jews, liberal Democrats, and retired trade unionists in particular, were flocking to south Florida by the late 1940s, many settling on Miami Beach.Most of the new white arrivals from the North were Democrats, but not of the conservative southern ilk that had oppressed black aspirations in the South for generations. There were also many Jews among the newcomers who were mostly sympathetic to civil rights. Some of them became activists in the movement, at considerable risk to themselves and their families. Several white clergymen were also active in the movement in Florida, including some who were arrested with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his demonstrations in St. Augustine. The resulting impact has been a bifurcation of the state in terms of racial views with a more liberal white population in south Florida while conservatives dominate life and politics in central and north Florida.[2]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.3.

Carver Village

In 1951 some black residents were relocated into Carver Village, a private white development on the east side of the Liberty City segregation wall so that the living conditions of the Liberty Square Housing Project could be improved. Whites lived in the Edison community just on the other side of the wall separating the white and black communities. Edison was a slum for poor whites and was described as a hostile area for blacks and the worst area for whites in the entire county. Some Edison whites there were not happy about blacks moving in. .On the evening of September 23, 1951, according to news sources, “a hundred pounds of dynamite” exploded behind an unoccupied sixteen-unit apartment building in Carver Village. No one was hurt. It is all but certain that the KKK placed the bomb. The FBI later estimated that only about twenty sticks of dynamite were used. The bombing caused great agitation in the community, even among some whites. The culprits were never found. According to Florida historian Stetson Kennedy, the FBI refused to investigate the Carver bombing on the grounds that such incidents were not a violation of federal civil rights laws when citizens were not in their homes or places of worship at the time of the attack. The United States Department of Justice agreed to investigate only the damage done to mailboxes by the blast. After the bombing whites fled in droves from Edison as more blacks moved into housing east of the segregation wall. Edison quickly became a black community especially as newly arriving Haitian immigrants moved in. Incidentally, Edison Senior High School opened originally as the Dade County public high school for white students who were interested in agriculture.[3]Dunn, Black Miami History, p.70.

Blacks in Miami registering for the first time as Democrats in 1947

It was no accident that Range and other black giants emerged in Miami in the late 1940s. Blacks were finally being allowed to register as Democrats. Prior to 1947 the Democratic Party did not admit Negroes to register in their party. Almost all blacks in the South were registered as Republicans after all Lincoln had been a Republican. But being a Republican in the post-Civil War South meant nothing in that southern states were all one-party states controlled by the resurgent white Democrat Party. Membership in any other party had no meaning since Democrats won all of the primary elections. A federal lawsuit filed in Texas changed this. The United States Supreme Court ruled that it was a violation of civil rights for otherwise qualified citizens to be excluded from political party membership based upon race. That decision opened the floodgates to political power for blacks in the South. It gave credence and substance now when black leaders spoke. Black leaders influenced black votes. The Dade School Board HAD to listen to Range and others who followed. Conditions at Liberty City Elementary School improved virtually overnight and more black schools sprang up north of Overtown. The school was located where Charles R. Drew Elementary School is located today. I went to school there being bused from Opa-Locka because there were no black schools north Dade County in 1951.[4]Dunn, Black Miami History, p.76

Dr. John O. Brown, Headed CORE in Miami

The most activists of the civil rights organizations in Miami was the local chapter of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, led by a black ophthalmologist Dr. John O. Brown. He had moved to Miami from Wewoka, Oklahoma after leaving the Army when WW II ended. Brown was appalled at what he found in Miami. He threw himself in to the barely breathing local movement. He was one of twelve black parents to sue the Dade County School Board to admit their children to all-white schools. He organized numerous demonstrations and was pivotal in involving whites in the movement. According to Dr. Brown, “Had it not been for some of the whites, there would not have been a CORE chapter in Miami.” As far as support from blacks was concerned, he credits, “the little man” for keeping the movement fueled with money and volunteers. “You couldn’t get black professional people involved. They were afraid of losing their jobs. It was the janitor, the maid, the bus driver, the yardman, who gave us the 5 and 10 dollar contributions that got us through.” Brown specifically mentioned white attorneys Howard Dixon and Tobias Simon. He praised local Jews who became involved such as Jack Gordon, who later became a powerful member of the state senate, and his wife, Barbara. Others he mentioned were Ruth Perry, a librarian from Miami Beach, who served CORE for many years as its secretary. Brown also recognized Shirley and Milton Zoloth, Thalia Peters and Phillip Stern, Marilyn and Herb Bloom, Dade County educators, and Leonard Turkel, a businessman and his wife, Annsheila. Dr. Brown was especially cognizant of the contributions made by one white man in particular, John Turner, a very influential businessman who, according to Brown, “When he snapped his fingers, Miami mayor Robert King High jumped. He was a Scotch-Irish man who knew how to get things done. He got people with clout on the county’s Community Relations Board. He pulled in bankers, politicians and others and compelled them to listen to black concerns.[5]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.2.

Garth Reeves, Publisher Miami Times

Local government response to demands for desegregation was typical of most Southern local governments; delay, compromise, resist. For example, when blacks demanded access to the City of Miami ‘s public golf course in the late 1950s, the city offered to open the golf course to blacks one day a week, when the course was closed for maintenance and watering. The blacks, which included the owner of the city’s most important black newspaper, The Miami Times, Garth Reeves, Elmer Ward, attorney John D. Johnson and Joesph Rice, refused the offer and sued the city. Miami’s right to keep the golf course segregated was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. Represented by the ubiquitous black attorney G. E. Graves, the blacks appealed to the United States Supreme Court.In October 1960, the Court slapped Miami in the face by voting unanimously that the city’s actions were unconstitutional. Without even hearing the city’s defense, the Court vacated the Florida Supreme Court decision and sent the case back to Tallahassee for reconsideration. The golf courses were desegregated without incident. Dade County behaved no better. Rather than pressing for the desegregation of local hotels as the county gained attraction as an international center, Dade County opened a hotel at Miami International Airport that was available to traveling black dignitaries after incidents in which black foreign officials were not admitted to local white hotels. That hotel continues to operate today.[6]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.5.

Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan float in the Orange Bowl Parade in Miami, early 1920s. The KKK made a comeback in Miami in the 1920s. They regularly rode through Colored Town. Sometimes their intrusions were resisted with arms by members of the Miami chapter of the Marcus Garvey Back to Africa Movement. (UNIA) Numerous police officers and politicians in South Florida either were members of the KKK or supported Klan’s activities, especially KKK actions to suppress black voting in Miami. Miami had the second largest KKK organization (called klaverns) in the state. The largest was in Jacksonville.

Blacks registering to vote in Dade County

Reflecting new moral standards in the state, some Florida newspapers also made changes. Two of the state’s most outstanding newspapers in terms of fairness on race issues, the St. Petersburg Times and the Mount Dora Topic, challenged Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall in the Groveland incident. By the 1950s Bill Baggs, the editor of the Miami News, was an outspoken critic of racial injustice, and by the 1960s even white churches in Florida were welcoming blacks into their congregations. With the infusion of so many Northerners into the white population and the relative enlightenment of the media, when the civil rights movement began in Florida, the white population, relative to other Southern states, was more open to social change. This is one of the reasons that there was comparatively less violence in the state as a whole.Still, Florida was a daughter of the Confederacy, and change came at a great and bloody price. Although there were agitations and challenges to racial segregation in Florida beginning in the 1940s, the truly activist period of the movement began in the aftermath of the 1951 Christmas night bombing of the home of Harry T. Moore, and also in response to the Brown Decision in 1954 that ordered the desegregation of public schools. The enlightenment that would change political life in the American South came first to the United States Supreme Court, which by the mid-1940s was questioning the all-white Democratic Party primary elections. The court had its opportunity to speak on the matter in a Texas case, Smith v. Allwright. In 1944, the court ruled that the exclusion of blacks from the Democratic primary in Texas was a denial of their constitutional rights. The ruling involved Texas, but the implication for politics in the South was clear to all; blacks, once registered in the Democratic Party, would be players in the political game in the South. Harry T. Moore, the visionary, had been right.The Smith v. Allwright decision was the first direct hit on Jim Crow, wounding but not killing him. His actual death would come with the Brown Decision in 1954. The Allwright decision empowered Southern blacks politically, assuring their participation in decisions as to who would represent them, including the election of law enforcement officers. The decision brought an immediate hostile response in the South, including Florida. Since the registration books in Florida were closed thirty days before an election, the High Court decision came too late to have any influence on the 1944 Democratic primaries. But Florida blacks were organizing themselves for the next elections. Harry T. Moore, in particular, and other black activists around the state were seeing to that. On August 31, 1944, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, meeting in Lake Wales, organized the Progressive Voters League of Florida (PVL) to encourage black political participation in the state. The moving force behind it, predictably, was Harry T. Moore who had begun organizing voter registration drives, even prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Texas case.[7]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.4.

School desegregation

School desegregation in various communities in Florida proceeded only with prodding by civil rights activists. In Orlando, for example, the desegregation of schools was a tough battle. The first school to integrate in Orange County was Durrance Elementary School in September 1962. The school had a large attendance of Air Force children, who were already accustomed to integration, so the opening was not surrounded by fanfare. Among the 718 students, 18 were black. The following year, the only two white schools in the county that remained segregated were Oak Ridge High School and Winter Park High School. Their all-white enrollment was apparently due to the fact that no black children had applied for enrollment at Oak Ridge, and the one black applicant at Winter Park, was denied admission because he was ruled unqualified to attend. By 1969, there were still communities surrounding Orlando that had not integrated their schools, but this changed when the Federal government stepped in and pressured the schools to allow all children to attend, regardless of race. Although Orlando did not see the racial confrontations that occurred in other Florida cities, it did have its share of racial tension in school desegregation.[8]Dunn, Black Education in Florida, p.70.

Father Theodore R. Gibson

Father Gibson worked with many other blacks and whites during the civil rights movement. Gibson and a black attorney, G.E. Graves, led the effort to desegregate busses in Miami. Graves, shown here with Gibson, was the attorney who most often represented at no cost, blacks and their white supporters who had been arrested for civil rights violations. He was one of the unsung heroes of the movement in Dade County.

Florida State Representative Joe Lang Kershaw

Joe Lange Kershaw was a Dade County public school teacher who in 1968 became the first black person to be elected to the Florida legislature since Reconstruction. Kershaw was the beneficiary of Operation Big Vote, the black political machine in Liberty City that was run by political king maker, Charles Hadley whose nephew, Howard Gary, became Miami’s first black city manager in the late 1970s.[9]Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.12.

Black Giants Emerge: Dr. John O. Brown Dr. John O. Brown (second from left) and his family including his wife’s parents: Brown was a descendant of Black Seminoles who had been forcibly moved to Oklahoma during the early 1880s. He moved to Miami after the Second World War and became a civil rights leader.

Many Florida school districts forced blacks to take them to court in order to desegregate schools. The reaction in Dade County was typical. Like most Southern school boards, the Dade County School Board did not move with all deliberate speed as ordered by the Supreme Court. This foot-dragging prompted a series of lawsuits by blacks. One of these was filed by Dr. John O. Brown and several other blacks. Brown was the president of the Miami Chapter of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) at the time. CORE was the most activist of the civil rights organizations in the South.

The suit, seeking an end to segregation in Florida schools, was filed in federal court on 12 June, l956. The plaintiffs included the Reverend Theodore R. Gibson, father of Theodore R. Gibson, Jr., a student at Dunbar Elementary; Prince Hepburn, father of Scheren Hepburn, who was ten at the time and attended Liberty City Elementary; Albert Reddick, father of Cleo Reddick; J. O. Brown, father of J. O. Brown, Jr.; James Lenton Parker, father of Theresa Parker; and Richard Powell, father of Richard Powell, Jr. who was eight years old and a student at Poinciana Elementary.

The suit asked the Court to order the Dade County School Board to devise a plan which would expeditiously desegregate the schools because the parents’ 1955 petition to the school board to abolish segregation as soon as practicable had been ignored. The named defendants included the School Board, its individual members and Superintendent of Schools, W. R. Thomas, who the plaintiffs wanted enjoined from enforcing Florida’s segregation laws. Brought under the Equal Rights Provision of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the suit described the plaintiffs as representatives of a class that included all parents of Negro school children.[10]Dunn, Black Miami History, p.79.

(I knew Dr. Brown well and spent many hours with him discussing the civil rights movement in Miami. When I completed my manuscript for my book “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century” I sent it to Dr. Brown for his review. He called me and said, “You can’t print this like it is. You didn’t mention any of the white people who helped us.” I revised the manuscript.)


1 Florida Archives \ see page 161 in Black Miami in the Twentieth Century
2 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.3.
3 Dunn, Black Miami History, p.70.
4 Dunn, Black Miami History, p.76
5 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.2.
6 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.5.
7 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.4.
8 Dunn, Black Education in Florida, p.70.
9 Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, p.12.
10 Dunn, Black Miami History, p.79.