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.

Richard Ervin and the Gradualist Approach to Desegregation

On May 12, 1955, Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin submitted an amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court proposing a gradual approach to school integration. The court had just recently ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The court chose to shelve the case for a year, citing a need for further study on how best to implement the decision. Sensing an opportunity to preserve segregation, acting Florida Governor Charley Johns enlisted the expertise of Attorney General Ervin, State Superintendent of Education Thomas D. Bailey, and Florida State University sociologist Lewis Killian to compile a report outlining the “practical problems involved [with desegregation] and recommendations” for implementation.  The Florida Cabinet approved a $10, 000 budget for the study, which began in the summer of 1954.  Killian began by seeking the opinions of elected officials, journalists, educators, and police chiefs on the subject. Approximately 8,000 surveys reached a biracial sample of community leaders, with a total response rate of fifty one percent.

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools  (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The responses from African-Americans revealed several prevalent fears associated with desegregating Florida’s public schools, including “withdrawal of white children from the public schools, the maintenance of discipline in mixed classes by Negro [sic.] teachers, refusal to employ Negro teachers for mixed schools, and difficulty in obtaining white teachers” as the “outstanding potential problems found to be expected.” White responses emphasized similar concerns over such matters as maintaining discipline in mixed classrooms, questionable cooperation of white parents, and violent outbreaks.  In a telling statistic, seventy-five percent of African-American participants supported the Brown ruling and believe the majority of whites did also.  In contrast, a similar percentage of whites thought blacks largely supported segregation. Armed with Killian’s results, Attorney General Ervin made a strong case for gradualism. After a year of delay, the United States Supreme Court reconvened in spring 1955 to clarify the federal enforcement of desegregation in a session aptly nicknamed Brown II.  The court considered the research of ten states regarding school desegregation, lauding Attorney General Ervin’s brief as a particularly strong resource. On May 31, 1955, after much deliberation, the justices handed down their decision.  The court mandated that compliance with the Brown decision should occur with “a prompt and reasonable start,” carried out with “all deliberate speed.”  The vague language coupled with Ervin’s push for gradualism foreshadowed the long battle for school desegregation in post-Brown Florida.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.