Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Florida

April 4, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a towering figure in the history of civil rights activism. Florida Governor Rick Scott directed the flags on public buildings throughout the state to be flown at half-mast, and proclaimed the day as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50th Anniversary Remembrance Day.

Reactions to Dr. King’s killing in 1968 were swift and widespread, as his many followers took to the streets to vent their frustration over the loss of such a powerful force for peaceful change. For many civil rights activists in Florida, this loss was personal. King had not only inspired them but in some cases had directly supported or even personally participated in their mission to banish segregation from the Sunshine State.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca. 1960s)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (ca. 1960s)

One example of this is the notice Dr. King took of a group of African-American students who were jailed in 1960 for staging a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee. Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, students at Florida A&M University and founders of the Tallahassee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were instrumental in organizing the protests and were among the students arrested. They were charged with civil disobedience and ordered to pay a $300 fine or spend 60 days in jail. Eight students, including the Stephens sisters, chose to go to jail rather than pay the fine, underscoring their assertion that their cause was just.

This “jail-in” attracted significant media attention, and supportive letters and telegrams began arriving from across the nation, including a telegram from Dr. King. Using local Tallahassee civil rights activist Rev. C.K. Steele as an intermediary, Dr. King urged the students to “remember that unearned suffering is redemptive. Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity.” Here is the complete message, one of many digitized as part of the Stephens Sisters Jail-In Papers on Florida Memory:

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a “sit-in” at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960.

Dr. King was more directly involved in a series of protests in mid-1964 in St. Augustine, which was then preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary. Racial unrest had been on the upswing for over a year, stemming from ongoing segregation in the city, and especially from local officials’ near-complete exclusion of African-Americans from the celebration planning process. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began directly supporting local civil rights activists in St. Augustine in the spring of 1964, with Dr. King himself arriving in May to rally the protesters. He was arrested on June 11 along with fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy when the two men requested service at a segregated restaurant. King was subsequently moved to the Duval County jail, where he reportedly said to one African-American employee, “Hello, sister. I’ve been in fifteen jails, but this is the first time that I have been treated like a hog.” King was eventually released, but he was arrested at least twice more that same month during his stay in St. Augustine. The protests King and the SCLC helped organize were not in vain. The episode helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was before Congress at that moment, and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

St. Augustine’s arrest records for June 30, 1964. The entry for Dr. King’s arrest is located near the bottom of the page.

When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, reactions in Florida ranged from quiet memorials to passionate demonstrations and rioting. Local and state officials acted quickly to restore the peace, but they also gave a nod of respect to King’s fervent belief in the power of peaceful protest. Governor Claude Kirk issued a statement directing the flags on public buildings in Florida to be flown at half-mast for two days to honor the passing of both Dr. King and a Tallahassee man who died when a firebomb was thrown into his family’s grocery store during tense demonstrations the day before. “Every Floridian has a choice,” Kirk wrote. “It is whether to turn to the advocates of violence and insurrection for leadership, or to renew our commitment to equal opportunity and racial justice through peaceful means.”

News release from Governor Kirk asking Floridians to display flags at half-mast from April 5-7, 1968, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s legacy extends far beyond the annual celebration of his birthday in January or the many streets and highways named in his honor. For Floridians, including both veterans of the civil rights movement and young people just now learning about its history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still stands out as an example of tireless leadership and determination to fulfill the promise of equality and freedom for all Americans.

Letters to Governor Bob Graham

As the 1982 deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) approached, pro- and anti-ERA activists sent letters to Florida’s Governor Bob Graham expressing their opinions about the amendment. Letters from all over the state and country arrived at the governor’s office. A selection of these letters have been digitized recently, and they demonstrate the passionate feelings U.S. residents had regarding the ERA.

Senator Bob Graham speaking at an ERA rally in Tallahassee (1978). After becoming governor in 1979, Graham led marches and gave speeches offering his support for the ERA.

A supporter from Sarasota encouraged the governor to speak up for the amendment to persuade legislators to vote in favor of it. “We are so close,” she wrote. “I am trying not to give up hope.”

A letter from Kelly Smith asking Governor Graham to speak often of the ERA to persuade the Florida Senate to ratify the amendment, February 14, 1982. Click to enlarge.

Governor Graham supported the amendment, but a pro-ERA activist criticized the governor for his “lukewarm” support of it. “I am confident that this Legislature will ratify [the] ERA, and send a state ERA to the people for ratification,” the supporter wrote.

A letter from Richard H. Samples, Jr. telling Governor Graham that his support for the ERA needs to be more vigorous, April 2, 1980. Click to enlarge.

Activists also employed creative methods to communicate their message with the governor. This Valentine’s Day poem requests “a more meaningful gift” for the holiday — the ratification of the ERA.

A Valentine’s Day card from Anita Andres urging the governor to support to the ERA, February 14, 1982. Click to enlarge.

Anti-ERA activists wrote letters equally as impassioned as the pro-ERA activists. A resident of Penney Farms in Clay County believed the amendment would have negative effects on American society: “If all of [the] ERA’s ramifications were fully enforced American society would soon become confused, frustrated and hardly recognizable.”

A letter from Helen Springer requesting the governor consider her opposition to the ERA, February 16, 1982. Click to enlarge.

Another opponent asserted that supporters were mistaken about the benefits of the amendment, saying that “If all Americans would be capable of studying it and visualizing possible consequences and damages ERA would cause, they would have to reject it.”

A letter from O.R. Havelka requesting that Governor Graham oppose the ratification of the ERA, March 1, 1980. Click to enlarge.

The governor’s position on the ERA remained unchanged. In the final days before the June 30 deadline, Governor Graham called the Legislature into a special session hoping to pass the amendment. On June 21, the amendment narrowly passed through the Florida House with a vote of 60 to 58. A few hours later, the amendment was defeated in the Florida Senate by a vote of 22 to 16.

For more information about the history of the ERA, read our blog Florida and the Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Save the Capitol!

With its candy-striped awnings and ornate art glass dome, Florida’s Old Capitol is an architectural reflection of a bygone era, as well as an excellent example of a grassroots historic preservation effort. For over a century, the building served elements of all three branches of government. Over time, however, Florida outgrew its Capitol, and in 1977 a new twenty-two story building was erected just behind it.  The Old Capitol was first slated for demolition, but when Tallahassee locals discovered the state’s intent to raze one of the oldest landmarks in the city, the Historic Tallahassee Preservation Board quickly mobilized a resistance, urging Floridians to preserve their history and “Save the Capitol!”

View of the east front of new Capitol with old capitol in front - Tallahassee, Florida

A mid to late 1970s view of the east front of new Capitol with Old Capitol in front, just as those engaged in the preservation battle would have seen it.

Perhaps some 1970s legislators were blind to the important symbol of a democratic state government, but from 1839 until 1977, the Old Capitol bore witness to numerous important milestones in Florida’s history. Two years after establishing  Tallahassee as the capital of the sparsely populated Florida territory in 1824, three log cabins were built for conducting government business.  But by the following decade, the territory seemed destined for statehood, and  Governor Richard Keith Call asked the legislature for a larger space in 1839. The new brick and mortar statehouse proved a worthwhile investment when it was completed in 1845.  In that same year, Florida became the 27th state to join the Union, and William Dunn Moseley, the first elected governor, was sworn into office beneath the new Capitol’s east portico, commencing the state’s history.

Florida's Capitol before addition of dome - Tallahassee, Florida (circa 1870s).

Though taken sometime in the 1870s, the above photograph captures the Old Capitol’s original 1845 appearance, before the addition of a small cupola in 1891 and then the familiar dome in 1902.

In an effort to accommodate a growing state government, Florida’s Capitol underwent a series of structural changes. However,  its current appearance was restored to honor the 1902 work of Frank Pierce Milburn, who added a stately copper dome.

View of the west front of the Old Capitol after 1902 - Tallahassee, Florida

View of the west front of the Old Capitol after Milburn’s 1902 additions, Tallahassee, between 1902 and 1922.

Further renovations occurred in 1923, 1936 and 1947. Despite physical alterations, the Capitol remained a firm symbol of democracy as Florida’s political landscape continued to evolve into the 20th century.

Replica of Liberty Bell displayed during Savings Bond drive in June 1950.

A replica of the Liberty Bell displayed during a savings bond drive at the Old Capitol highlights the structure as a physical centerpiece of government action in Florida, June 1950.

However, by the early 1970s it was clear that Florida government had outgrown its Tallahassee headquarters.  Thus, the 1972 Legislature appropriated funds for a new, mammoth Capitol Complex, intending to destroy the Old Capitol after finishing the project. When it finally opened in 1977, a faction of politicians, including Governor Reubin Askew and House Speaker Donald Tucker, remained in favor of the original demolition plan, but an unexpected backlash would challenge the proposed action.

Representative Bill Nelson with a toy bulldozer - Tallahassee, Florida (18 May 1977)

Nelson to the rescue! Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, throws his body in front of the “first” bulldozer to show up at the Old Capitol. Nelson made the statement earlier in the session that efforts to save the Old Capitol had so frustrated him that he felt like he would throw his body in front of the first bulldozer that showed up to begin to raze the historic structure. Nelson was true to his word as Reps. Hill and Haben wound up a toy and started it down the aisle of the house chamber, May 18, 1977.

Nancy Dobson, a historian and director of the Historic Tallahassee Preservation Board, spearheaded the opposition, enlisting the support of Secretary of State Bruce Smathers. Soon, legislators, academics and the interested public began expressing their indignation over the idea of eliminating such a significant historic landmark. “If the political powers within the state decide to destroy the building in which they themselves have a sentimental and historical involvement, what will be their attitude toward other preservation efforts in the state with which they may have little or no personal relationship?” Dobson questioned.

Portrait of historian Nancy Dobson - Tallahassee, Florida (between 1962 and 1974).

Portrait of historian Nancy Dobson,  Tallahassee, ca. 1960s.

Like many other historic preservation campaigns,  the race to save the Old Capitol was led primarily by female activists. Their work culminated in an event orchestrated by Mrs. Bruce Smathers. On March 30, 1978, “Save the Capitol Night” hosted guests at the site for music, tours and an opportunity to sign a petition in favor of preservation. Kicking off the festivities was a local folk band who performed on the steps, encouraging audiences to “save that grand old southern lady on the hill.”

Ultimately, the campaign was a success, and the Old Capitol, restored to its 1902 appearance, opened as a public museum in 1982.

A modern view of the old capitol as a museum with the new capitol complex in back (8 July 2008).

A modern view of the Old Capitol as a museum with the new Capitol Complex in back, July 8, 2008.

The State Archives holds collection M95-1, which documents efforts to save the historic Capitol building from demolition as the new Capitol Complex was being constructed. The collection includes correspondence between concerned citizens and the Secretary of State’s office, newspaper articles, research notes, architect proposals, plans and blueprints, coordination conference minutes and copies of photographs (ca. 1890s) of the Old Capitol.