Florida Reacts to the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968)

Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by gunshot on April 4, 1968 as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The reaction across the United States was a mixture of disbelief, grief, and at times violent anger. Tensions boiled over in scores of U.S. cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C. as young people took to the streets to vent their frustration at the untimely death of one of the era’s greatest forces for peaceful change.

Reactions to King’s death were just as passionate in Florida, where memorials, demonstrations, and rioting took place in several cities across the state. Police in Pensacola, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Fort Pierce, Pompano Beach, Tampa, and Jacksonville reported widespread rioting and the use of Molotov cocktails to firebomb businesses and residences owned by whites. At least one fatality resulted from these activities in Tallahassee, where one man aged 19 died when a firebomb was thrown into his family’s grocery store.

Local and state officials moved quickly to restore order. The city of Gainesville instituted a curfew shortly after news of the assassination broke out, requiring everyone except emergency personnel to remain off the streets between 11pm and 6am. In Gainesville and Tallahassee, law enforcement temporarily closed liquor stores, bars, and gas stations. Governor Claude Kirk met with state law enforcement officials to plan a statewide strategy for maintaining the peace, and kept in close contact with local sheriffs and police.

Organizations both inside and outside of the government encouraged the public to remain calm and avoid any further violence. Governor Kirk asked that all flags flown on public buildings in the state be flown at half mast for two days, and in a press release he called on Dr. King’s followers and admirers to live by King’s example and seek nonviolent solutions for their grievances. George Gore, president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, closed the campus for a weeklong “cooling off” period following the assassination. The Florida Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) released a statement calling for Floridians to observe the day of King’s funeral (April 9th) as a “time of sober reflection” rather than demonstration.

Although anguish and disillusionment over the death of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s foremost leaders would remain potent long after these events, the most dramatic reactions ended by the middle of April 1968. Rumors circulated that Governor Kirk would call a special session of the Legislature to discuss the crisis, but this proved unnecessary. The brief period of unrest in Florida that followed Dr. King’s untimely death has been captured in a number of documents and photographs, some of which are shown below.

Governor Claude Kirk meets with state law enforcement officials to discuss a response to the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Governor Claude Kirk meets with state law enforcement officials to discuss a response to the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Crow's Grocery Store, located at 1902 Lake Bradford Road in Tallahassee, Florida, was damaged when a Molotov cocktail firebomb was thrown inside during the unrest following Dr. King's death. Travis Crow, age 19, died of suffocation before he could escape the building.

This photo from the Tallahassee Fire Department Collection depicts one of the casualties of the reaction that followed Dr. King’s assassination. Crow’s Grocery Store, located at 1902 Lake Bradford Road in Tallahassee, Florida, was damaged when a Molotov cocktail firebomb was thrown inside. Travis Crow, age 19, died of suffocation before he could escape the building.

This Associated Press news summary describes some of the typical stories emerging from the widespread reaction to Dr. King's assassination.

This Associated Press news summary describes some of the typical stories emerging from the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination.

The Florida Photographic Collection contains more images depicting Dr. Martin Luther King, his activities in Florida over the years, and the efforts of Floridians across the state to honor his memory.

Teachers and students may also find the Black History Month resources of our Online Classroom helpful, as well as our learning unit entitled The Civil Rights Movement in Florida.

Detour to Liberty: Black Troops in Florida during the Civil War

In his annual message to the Florida General Assembly on November 17, 1862, Governor John Milton pointed to Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed freedom for all slaves living in areas of the country still in rebellion by January 1863, as a plot to “subjugate Florida . . . and to colonize the State with negroes . . . .”

The proclamation was, Milton argued, nothing less than “the means the most terrific which could be devised to alarm the people of the South . . . .” As Milton feared, the Emancipation Proclamation came to pass on January 1, 1863, but the alarm that sounded across the South was soon compounded by the Union’s deployment of black troops against the Confederacy.

Beginning in March 1863, Florida was the site of some of the earliest operations of black regiments, which became an essential part of Union operations in the state until the end of the war.

Drawing of a black Union infantryman

Drawing of a black Union infantryman

As early as November 1862, black companies conducted raids against salt works and saw mills along both sides of the coastal border between Georgia and Florida. These attacks were the outgrowth of the U.S. War Department’s order of August 25, 1862. That order allowed the creation of a limited number of black units within the U.S. Army’s Department of the South, which was responsible for military operations along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
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Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Three)

The Black Seminoles

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

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Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Two)

Fort Mose

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

Read more »

Happy Birthday Eartha M.M. White (November 8, 1876)

Eartha with her mother Clara White: Jacksonville (ca. 1910)

Eartha with her mother Clara White: Jacksonville (ca. 1910)

Eartha M. M. White was a humanitarian, businesswoman and philanthropist from Jacksonville. She created educational opportunities and provided relief to African-Americans in northeastern Florida. White helped found several organizations and institutions, including the Clara White Mission, Mercy Hospital and the Boy’s Improvement Club. She was designated as a Great Floridian by the Florida Department of State in the year 2000.

Troy Demps and African-American Hymn Lining

Hymn liner Troy Demps (left) and apprentice Brian Wright: Orlando (1995)

Hymn liner Troy Demps (left) and apprentice Brian Wright: Orlando (1995)

In recognition of Black History Month, we will highlight the uniquely African-American tradition of hymn lining.

The practice of lining hymns can be traced back to the 17th century when printed hymnals were scarce and many churchgoers—both slaves and whites—could not read.

A church elder or minister who could read would “line out,” or recite a hymn line by line, which in turn was repeated by the congregation. These hymns, such as “Amazing Grace” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” persisted and evolved in African-American churches after emancipation.

As Deacon at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, Troy Demps continues to practice hymn lining, and believes there is a more focused connection with the Holy Spirit among the congregation when the hymnal is set aside. Through the Florida Department of State’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program, he taught hymn lining in order to preserve the tradition and was awarded the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2003.

This podcast features performances from Troy Demps and his apprentices at the Florida Folk Festival as well as a 1995 interview with folklorist Bob Stone.

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Mary McLeod Bethune

Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina. Mary was one of 16 children born to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod.

Birthplace of Mary McLeod Bethune: Mayesville, South Carolina (late 1800s)

Birthplace of Mary McLeod Bethune: Mayesville, South Carolina (late 1800s)

After completing her studies at the Moody Bible Institute, Bethune moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1904 to start her own school. She taught reading, writing and home economics to African-American girls in a one-room schoolhouse. Bethune’s modest school eventually became the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls.

Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls from her school: Daytona Beach, Florida (ca. 1905)

Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls from her school: Daytona Beach, Florida (ca. 1905)

In 1931, the institution started by Mary McLeod Bethune became Bethune-Cookman College. Learn more about the life and achievements of Mary McLeod Bethune, including the founding of Bethune-Cookman College and her impact on civil rights, on Florida Memory.

Mary McLeod Bethune (ca. 1904)

Mary McLeod Bethune (ca. 1904)

UPDATE: On Tuesday, February 28, 2012, Governor Rick Scott announced the first inductees into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame: Mary McLeod Bethune, Claude Denson Pepper and Charles Kenzie Steele. Established by the Florida Legislature in 2010, the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame recognizes individuals who made significant contributions in furthering civil rights for all Floridians.

Patricia Stephens Due (December 9, 1939 – February 7, 2012)

Patricia Stephens Due at Civil rights demonstration in front of segregated theater: Tallahassee, Florida (1963)

Patricia Stephens Due at a civil rights demonstration in front of a segregated theater: Tallahassee, Florida (1963)

Civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due passed away on Tuesday, February 7, at the age of 72.

Due, a native of Quincy, Florida, led demonstrations and voter-registration drives in Tallahassee during the height of the Civil Rights movement. She was among a group of students from Florida A&M University jailed for attempting to integrate a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s department store in downtown Tallahassee on February 20, 1960.

Due and 8 of her companions from the Woolworth’s sit-in refused to pay a $300 fine, opting instead to serve jail time. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized their determination in the struggle for civil rights and sent letters to the jail. Other civil rights leaders including Jackie Robinson also contacted the group of 8 in the Leon County Jail.

Due penned a letter while in the Leon County Jail, detailing her commitment to civil rights and recounting the Woolworth’s sit-in. She participated in many other demonstrations in Tallahassee in the 1960s, joined several civil rights organizations and served as the field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality in Tallahassee.

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks proclaimed May 11, 2011 “Patricia Stephens Due Day,” recognizing her critical role in and contributions to the Civil Rights movement in Tallahassee and beyond.

Sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter - Tallahassee, Florida

Sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter: Tallahassee, Florida (1960)