Florida Today: “Worse Than Mississippi”

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

Paul Ortiz

PAUL ORTIZ IS associate professor of history at the University of Florida. This article is adapted and newly updated from a presentation at a plenary, “Making Emancipation: From a Black Reconstruction to a Black President,” sponsored by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Jacksonville, Florida on October 5, 2013.

WELCOME TO THE Sunshine State. A place where we are — to borrow from Brother Walter Mosley — always outnumbered, always outgunned.

This is the perfect time to think about and to debate the meaning(s) of Emancipation. This is the perfect place to think about the meaning of freedom. Because, brothers and sisters: in Florida, every year is the year of the Ballot or the Bullet. Florida is not only the new Mississippi of America, we are worse than Mississippi.

If Emancipation means the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, then Florida falls short. In the 20th century we were a leader in environmental racism. Jacksonville is crawling with Superfund and toxic dumping sites, nearly all of which are located in Black-majority neighborhoods.

This is the abbreviated story of one of the Superfund Sites. It was called “Brown’s Dump” and the city dumped burned waste on a 50-acre site near 33rd and Pearce into the 1950s. The groundwater was contaminated by arsenic, lead and mercury. Guess what school was built there in 1955, and guess which children were poisoned by the toxic waste for half a century? All you need to know is the name: Mary McCleod Bethune Elementary School.

Today, Florida is a state where eight-year-old children are locked in prison with adults. For a full century, governors conservative, reactionary and supposedly liberal administered a concentration camp for juveniles called Dozier Industrial, located just a few hours down the road from here. This was a place where middle-school age children were beaten, raped, murdered.

As we speak, unmarked graves are being exhumed from this monstrous monument to Jim Crow that was only closed in 2011. In the first years of the 20th century, this state already recorded the highest juvenile incarceration rate in America.

In Florida, the 13th Amendment was viewed by state officials and employers in the 20th century as a provisional document at best. In the 1890s, a Florida prison camp captain gave Florida a name that reflected its growing national reputation. J.C. Powell dubbed Florida, “The American Siberia.”

While Wisconsin was known for its colleges, Florida was known for its convict labor camps. Decades later, Stetson Kennedy was one of many investigative journalists who found the state’s turpentine farms, phosphate mines and truck farms teeming with slavery. He testified before the United Nations in 1952 that hundreds of thousands of workers toiled in forced labor situations throughout the South.

The Rule of Lynch Law

When James Weldon Johnson penned the great song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Sunshine State boasted the highest per capita lynching rate in the United States. Sydney Catts, the eventual winner of the 1916 Florida gubernatorial campaign, bragged that he had “killed a negro” as part of his platform, which also included virulent anti-Catholicism.

No wonder James Weldon Johnson wrote: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod felt in the days when hope unborn had died…”

In the next decade, anti-Black massacres and mass murders raged across the state, fueled by the great Land Boom. When African Americans tried to register to vote in 1920, the Ku Klux Klan reorganized. In 1920, the Ocoee Massacre was followed by the Perry Civil War of 1922, then followed by the Rosewood Massacre.

In 1926, Alice Dunbar Nelson shocked the nation with her editorial on Florida’s Marion County Radio Lynching. Nick Williams was accused of speaking impudently to a white female shopkeeper. Williams was abducted by local citizens and Alice Dunbar Nelson described the lynching:

“The affair is staged near a broadcasting station, Northern visitors are called out of their beds to see the horror, and to taste well of the sweetness of a murdered man’s cries. The microphone records and transmits the victims dying moans, and the Floridians far and near who are unable to be among those present tune in on Station S-A-V-A-G-E and have their cup of cruelty filled to its poisoned brim. Shots come with startling distinctness over the aerials of the listeners in, and head phones and loud speakers give out alike the yells and curses of the superior Nordics who need five hundred to kill one.”

No wonder James Weldon Johnson wrote: “We have come, over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading out path through the blood of the slaughtered.”

Florida’s leading daily newspaper the Florida Times-Union published so many editorials upholding the concepts of segregation, voter suppression and cheap labor that it would take many volumes to hold them all. Please note that this newspaper has never apologized for the decades of crimes it endorsed in the name of white supremacy.

Typical of such columns was an editorial published in 1904 titled “The Color Line that Belts the Earth.” The editors intoned: “In the South, the negro in politics is not tolerated — in other sections he must obediently follow. There are lynchings so nearly everywhere that the rule is established, but the South does not forbid the black man to earn a living as do our neighbors. If the negro be wise he will respect the limits set for him as does the elephant and the tiger and the others who accept rules and make no pretense to reason.…”

Rising Up

“No pretense to reason!” If this state has been a leading site of oppression its African-American communities have also birthed many of the nation’s greatest freedom fighters: Mrs. Bethune, Howard Thurman, A. Philip Randolph, Harry & Harriette Moore, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Stephens Due, John Due, Stetson Kennedy and so many more. If the Sunshine State defined oppression in the United States its people, Black, Latino & radical whites have fought to redeem the meanings of Emancipation.

Florida is the place of that marvelous egalitarian José Marti, the unvanquished Seminole Nation, the Conch Republic, Fort Mose & the largest slave rebellion in American history. In the 1880s Key West was revered as the “Freest Town in the South” ruled by the Black & Afro-Cuban Knights of Labor.

Four decades later, even as trade unionism was being crushed in Ybor City’s tobacco mills, Cuban immigrant labor activist Gerardo Cederorina y Piñera observed in the depth of the Great Depression that “In the present system, so inappropriate, man finds himself worse-off than the beasts; but a day will arrive in which justice shall be done, and I trust this will not long be delayed.”

The former lector’s testimony in the closing paragraph of Stetson Kennedy’s Palmetto Country (1942) ends with a mixture of sadness as well as a note of possibility.

Today, community organizers in Florida are carrying these struggles forward and giving us new ways to define Emancipation. Just when we thought we had reached rock bottom in the wake of the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin, the Dream Defenders came to the fore.

This remarkable group of young people is solid in their understanding of history and social movement building. They waged a full month sit-in in Tallahassee in the Governor’s mansion, and they are on the front lines today of direct action organizing.

Latino Dream Activists have joined with their allies in the Dream Defenders to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin and to demand that the state of Florida repeal the Stand Your Ground Law, and that the state end modern-day slavery in agriculture.

These youthful community organizers are making a dent in this state’s wall of injustice by combining education with social action. They draw on the wisdom of elders such as Congressman John Lewis, Harry Belafonte & John Due even as they chart out new pathways of justice.

A Point of Crisis

Nationally, we are at a point of both crisis as well as opportunity. In the election of 2012, 75% of Latinos who cast their ballots in the presidential election, cast them in support of President Barack Obama. Is it any wonder that state legislatures across the land are now targeting the voting rights of Latinos?

The supervisor of elections of Polk County, Florida stated that on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, the state was trying to force her to purge Latino voters. “It was sloppy, it was slapdash and it was inaccurate,” Polk County Supervisor Lori Edwards stated. “They were sending us names of people to remove because they were born in Puerto Rico. It was disgusting.”

I will defer my remaining time to A. Philip Randolph, a native of Florida and his speech at the March on Washington in 1963. Brother Randolph lays out in fine detail a central part of our problem today: American society continues to place the rights of property over human rights.

For one thing, we must destroy the notion that Mrs. Murphy’s property rights include the right to humiliate me because of the color of my skin. The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality.

It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits — for we are the first victims of unemployment. Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.

Unfortunately, the oppressive dynamic that Randolph exposed in 1963 has not changed in one measure. What has changed now is that African Americans cannot be the only group in Florida and in the larger society to struggle against the grotesque injustices found in states like Florida. We all must join in this newest epoch of struggle.

March-April 2016, ATC 181