An Historical Perspective on Public School Desegregation in Florida:

Lessons from the Past for the Present

 

Irvin D.S. Winsboro

Florida Gulf Coast University

 

In 1896 many people in the Deep South applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that separate facilities for blacks and whites did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s “due process” clause as long as those facilities were equal in services. Even before the Plessy case gave legal sanction to separation in Florida, local jurisdictions took their segregationist cue from Tallahassee. The Florida Constitution of 1885 provided that, “White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school …”[1] Plessy in 1896, and other state statutes in 1905, 1913, and 1939, reinforced the separate schools doctrine.[2] The experiences of state-local interaction to perpetuate segregation in the public schools of Lee County, Florida until 1969, fifteen years after the landmark Brown decision struck down public school segregation, provides key lessons on how the segregationist system worked in the ”Sunshine State” from post-Reconstruction to recent times. The education of black students in Lee County remained limited to church and private instruction until 1913, when the Lee County Board of Public Instruction allocated meager funds to support the education of the growing black population in Lee County. The Board subsequently created a segregated school in Fort Myers, the county seat, which served blacks on a segregated basis until 1969.

On 18 May, 1954, the county awoke to find this segregationist practice under attack as a result of Brown, tendered by a unanimous Supreme Court. The ruling declared separate schools for white and black students inherently unequal and thus in violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution.[3] Although a frontal attack on Plessy, state officials immediately set in motion policies designed to repudiate the Court ruling. Acting Governor Charley E. Johns went so far as to suggest “a special legislative session on school desegregation” in the aftermath of Brown. Although Johns did not pursue the idea in his next Cabinet meeting, he traveled to Richmond, Virginia to attend a conference on segregation at which he proclaimed that the vast majority of people in Florida—black and white—favored segregation. As reported on the front page of the Fort Myers News-Press, Johns followed that action by proposing to the Southern Governors’ Conference that the US Constitution be amended to allow states “to maintain separate but equal public schools for the races.”[4]

Almost simultaneously, Johns’ adversary in the Democratic primary for governor in 1954, “moderate,” yet pro-business, State Senator LeRoy Collins of Tallahassee assured his followers that he had never been a supporter of desegregation, that he “would support a continuance of  … established customs in the South,” and that Brown would not alter his views on that subject.[5] While promulgating a more measured response than Johns, Collins nevertheless chose a segregationist rather than a desegregationist path. In retrospect, the most pensive, pragmatic, and flexible state-level politician on the race issue, Senator Collins, had now set the ground rules for “moderation” in post-Brown Florida: moderation would embrace pro-segregationist and non pro-integrationist policies at the state level.

Although termed a moderate like Collins on the desegregation issue, Florida Superintendent of Public Instruction, Thomas D. Bailey, seemed to also signal intractability on the race issue in May, 1954, when he stated: “the greatest danger we have isn’t just the segregation issue. We have a lot of people down here who hate to be pushed around, whether the state of federal government is doing the pushing.”[6] The Republican candidates for governor shared common ground with Johns, Collins, and Bailey by declaring that Brown did not apply to Florida “in its present status.”[7]

Yet the message resonated even more profoundly at another level. For the leaders of Florida had also declined to lend any moral support to Brown. Without either moral or legal stands on Brown, Tallahassee ensured that segregation would remain a pillar of Florida’s public education system. Perhaps the public pronouncements of Florida’s officials seemed less virulent than those of the leaders of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, and, subsequently, persuaded scholars of the “moderation” factor in the Sunshine State. Even so, it is difficult to understand how all but the most die-hard segregationists in post-Brown Florida would have viewed the state’s intransigence as moderate.

Lee County Board Minutes show that members were confident that they would have state support to evade compliance with the Court’s demands. They believed that segregation could continue under existing state laws regulating the attendance of children at county schools. The Board’s legal advisor, attorney F. Ewing Barnes, proclaimed as well, that the county could continue segregation on this basis. Barnes assured Board members that state and local and not federal authorities would determine which school a student attended.[8]

            To preempt a Court challenge to the anti-integration measures, Florida’s Attorney General Richard W. Ervin was quoted in a newspaper as promoting “a Constitutional method by which Florida could preserve segregation in its public schools,” and prepared legal arguments to show the Federal Bench why Florida would need an indefinite time period to consider desegregation of its schools. The State Cabinet allocated $10,000 to Ervin to prepare his argument. Ervin, later a chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, purportedly undertook this action in response to a Court invitation to answer the ambiguous time-line parts of the Brown ruling. He completed his Amicus Curiae Brief of the Florida Attorney General in September, 1954.  In his brief, Ervin argued that without a deadline, Florida could eventually orchestrate full integration. While some have argued that Ervin constructed the brief to “ease in” integration, in reality Ervin’s actions resulted in yet another roadblock to the implementation of Brown in the State of Florida.[9]

            While touted as an effort to allow Florida and other states to gradually desegregate their public schools, the brief actually proposed numerous legal roadblocks to local school desegregation. Ervin offered arguments as to why immediate desegregation was impractical, including studies purporting to document 75% of Florida’s white population opposing desegregation. He declared a need to revise administrative procedures in the schools, and in a tacit rejection of the separate but unequal argument, he cited the unfair competition between black and white students was due to the inferiority of the black schools. Ervin asked further that the Court consider that local communities needed time to adjust to the sociological and psychological shock of forced desegregation. In Brown v. Board of Education II (1955) the Court embraced a good portion of Ervin’s logic.[10]

On 31 May, 1955, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Brown II. The judgment handed state and local officials the responsibility for ending school segregation under guidelines to be established by the respective Federal District Courts. The Court’s ruling established no timetables nor deadlines, but simply ordered desegregation as “soon as practicable.” The Fort Myers News-Press reported in a related article that the $10,000 expended in preparing the Amicus filing was the best money the state had ever spent.[11] For Tallahassee, as with Lee County, the die had now been cast. The reaction to Brown would be one of delay, obfuscation, and obstruction. In the midst of the gubernatorial election the following year, Governor Collins carefully extended and expanded his non-radical, pro-segregationist image. Examples of this can be seen in Collins’ legal, non-confrontational public position on the segregation issue in the campaign of 1956, while quietly supporting a committee to explore legal measures by which the state could fortify its system of segregated practices.[12]

            The committee, headed by retired Circuit Judge L.L. Fabisinski of Pensacola, convened on 21 March, 1956. It recommended the strengthening of local school boards and the enhancement of the governor’s powers of law enforcement, measures the state later adopted in actions perpetuating segregation. Governor Collins and the Legislature approved the findings of the Fabisinski Commission, agreeing that the measures adopted, including a Pupil Assignment Act and a new “Private School corporation Act,” were sufficient to maintain a separate public school system.

As a result of the state-level attempts to derail the Court’s desegregation order, Lee County’s Board remained unaffected by the school desegregation movement now creeping across the South, to include some of the more progressive districts in Florida such as Miami-Dade.[13] A decade went by before Lee County’s School Board even proposed a desegregation plan. This effort finally came as a result of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which effectively trumped the State of Florida’s de facto policy of segregation, or at least Tallahassee’s guidelines for segregation at the county level. Governor Bryant, and his immediate successors, Haydon Burns and Claude Kirk, Jr., all staunch segregationists, saw little reason to make defiance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cornerstones of their policies, as they moved instead to prioritize such measures as outdoor recreation and increased powers for the governor’s office.[14]

In essence, Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided for the enforcement of desegregation that the courts lacked. The Department of Justice could now act as a plaintiff to legally force school districts to comply with federal desegregation guidelines. Additionally, federal funds could be withheld from school districts which continued to be segregated.[15] Responding to the new Federal mandate, which effectively defused gubernatorial and legislative pro-segregation policies and nullified state actions such as the Pupil Assignment Act and the Fabisinski Commission blueprint, Lee County moved into a new level of reality regarding desegregation.

Shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act in July, 1964 (opposed by both of the US Senators from Florida), the Board proposed its initial plan for desegregation. The plan called for gradual implementation, starting with the first grade in 1965, then proceeding to grades 2-3 in 1966, grades 4, 5, and 6 in 1967, grades 7, 8, and 9 in 1968, and grades 10, 11, and 12 in 1969.[16] Even though the Board now faced the possibility of stiff Federal intervention for delaying school integration, it felt confident that an attenuated plan would both placate federal authorities and satisfy the black community. The Board miscalculated on both accounts.

On 4 August, 1964, John H. Blalock, in tandem with the local and national NAACP, filed suit in the Federal District Court in Tampa, asking for an injunction enjoining the Lee County Board of Public Instruction from continuing its policy, practice, custom, and usage of a bi-racial school system for its 11,576 white students and its 2,583 black students.[17] Rosalind Blalock, et al. v. the Board of Public Instruction of Lee County, Florida, et al. argued that Lee County’s dual system resulted in forced segregation of its diverse student population, “acting under color of the authority … of the state of Florida … on a racially segregated basis … provided by the Florida Pupil Assignment Law. . . .”[18]

On 1 September, 1965, all parties reached a tentative accelerated desegregation plan, which presumably would satisfy the goals of Blalock and place the County in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[19] Token staff and student integration was to begin in August, 1965.  Since no black teachers were assigned to white schools, the NAACP challenged the county on this practice.[20] The NAACP argued that Lee County continued to maintain a dual system through its attendance zones and had not proceeded in good faith with a district-wide desegregation plan that affected by 1966 the integration of only twenty-six children in a district with nearly 16,000.[21]

As with the previous plan, the School board’s revised plans from 1966 through 1968 did not accelerate Lee County’s school desegregation to the satisfaction of the US Justice Department and the local and state NAACP.[22] Lee County still had identifiably all-black schools and all-black or all-white faculty and fewer than 4 percent of the county’s black children attended integrated schools (787 out of 3,369 black students). The presiding judge then ordered the county to formulate a new desegregation plan.[23]

The Board filed a motion to amend the court’s findings, but was denied the appeal on 9 June, 1969.[24] The Board then considered appealing the case to higher courts, but its attorney counseled that such an appeal would prove futile. Moreover, the Board’s attorneys determined that the county could face penalties for an unsuccessful appeal.[25] It had finally become apparent to the Board and its counsel that the state could not provide further justification for delay and that the power of the Federal government could not be circumvented. The local board now submitted a plan for total integration on 31 December, 1969.[26] After a decade and a half the Lee County School Board had accepted, however, unwillingly, the High Court’s decision in Brown.

 

Conclusion

The eradication of dual school systems in Lee County, Florida came only after constant pressure applied by local citizens, the NAACP, the Federal Courts, and the US Department of Justice. For a decade, historical and newly-promulgated measures had worked to prevent desegregation in Lee County Schools. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Blalock case to move a recalcitrant board away from those state guidelines on segregation towards compliance with federal law and Court orders. It also took these Federally-supported measures to move Lee County to finally eschew the segregationist lessons of the past, which had so steadily trickled out of Tallahassee, to move into a modern era of compliance with the dictates of Brown. Viewed as a case study, the experience of Lee County, Florida reflects all too poignantly what it took to move Florida from a segregationist past to an integrationist present.

 



[1]Florida Constitution (1885), Article 12, Section 12.

[2]See J. Irving E. Scott, The Education of Black People in Florida (Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co., 1974), 5-13; Joseph Aaron Tomberlin, “The Negro and Florida’s System of Education: The Aftermath of the Brown Case” (Dissertation, Florida State University, 1967), 2-15.

[3]Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

[4]Tallahassee Democrat, 18 May, 1954; “Johns considers Special Session of Legislature,” Fort Myers News-Press, 18 May, 1954; Jacksonville Florida Times-Union, 9 June, 1954, 11 June, 1954, 16 June, 1954; St. Petersburg Times, 12 June, 1954; “Johns Suggests Governors Act on Segregation,” Fort Myers News-Press, 12 November, 1954.

 

[5]Tomberlin, “Aftermath of the Brown Case,” 36; Thomas R. Wagy, “A South to Save: The Administration of Governor LeRoy Collins of Florida” (Dissertation,  Florida State University, 1980), 57-102; LeRoy Collins, “Past Struggles, Present Changes, and the Future Promise for Civil Rights in Florida and the Nation,” in Charles U. Smith, ed., The Civil Rights Movement in Florida and the United States: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Tallahassee: Father and Son Publishing, 1989), 15; Tallahassee Democrat, 16 May, 1954 and 18 May, 1954; Jacksonville Florida Times-Union, 18 May, 1954; Miami Herald, 18 May, 1954.

[6]Jacksonville Florida Times-Union, 23 May, 1954. The crux of the conclusion that Florida’s leaders followed a “moderate’ approach to Brown rests on the assumption that pro-business advocates, such as Collins, recognized that Florida’s urbanization, immigrant base, and dependence on tourism called for Florida to dissociate itself from the more rabid actions of other Southern states. See, for example, Wagy, “A South To Save,” 103-190; David R. Colburn and Richard K. Scher, “Race Relations of Florida Gubernatorial Politics Since the Brown Decision,” Florida Historical Quarterly 55 (1976), 154.

[7]Jacksonville , Florida Times-Union, 19 May, 1954.

[8]“Official Minutes of Meetings of the Lee County School Board,” Minutes, 18 May, 1954. Hereafter cited as Minutes.

 

[9]“Says Plan Would Ban Integration, Be Constitutional,” Fort Myers News-Press, 17 March, 1955; Charles U. Smith and Charles Griggs, “School Desegregation in Florida,” in Smith, Civil Rights Movement, 18-83; Charlton W. Tebeau and Ruby Leach Carlson, Florida From Indian Trail to Space Age: A History, vol. 2 (Delray Beach, FL: Southern Publishing Company, 1965), 1-104; Fort Myers News-Press, 19 May, 1954; “Richard Ervin, 99, Ex-Attorney General,” Fort Myers News-Press, 27 August, 2004; Southern Education Reporting Service, Southern School News (Nashville: Southern Education Reporting Service, 8 June, 1955), 18-19; Manning J. Dauer, Florida’s Politics and Government (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1980), 504.

[10]Smith and Griggs, “School Desegregation in Florida,” 183; Florida, Amicus Curiae Brief of The Florida Attorney General, September, 1954, 18-24; Brown v. Board of Education II 349 U.S. 234 (1955).

[11]“Justices Direct District Judges Guide Program,” Fort Myers News-Press, 1 June, 1955; Brown v. Board of Education, 349 v.s. 294 (1955); “State Relieved,” Fort Myers News-Press, 1 June, 1955; “Desegregation Postponed Ervin Says,” Miami Herald, 3 June, 1955, 1-A.

[12]Time, 10 November, 1957.

[13]Jackson, “A History of School Desegregation,” 145, #14, 241.

[14]Allen Morris, comp., The Florida Handbook, 1933-1994 (Tallahassee, Peninsular Publishing, 1993), 342-45.

[15]US Civil Rights Act, 1964 Title VI, 42 USC, 2000d-2000d-7, available from http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/coord/titlevistat.htm; accessed 15 February, 2003. See David R. Colburn, “Florida’s Governors Confront the Brown Decision:  A Case Study of the Constitutional Politics of School Desegregation,” in Kermit L. Hall and James W. Ely, eds.,  An Uncertain Tradition:  Constitutionalism and the History of the South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989), 326-355.

[16]Stone and Carter, The First One Hundred Years, 77; “School Board Moves to Kill Integration Suit,” Fort Myers News-Press, 23 October, 1964.

[17]Blalock v. Lee County Board of Public Instruction Civil Action 64-168-T (1964); see Jackson, “A History of School Segregation,” 149.

[18]Ibid.

[19]“Defendants Compliance With Final Decree,” 1 September, 1966, Blalock  v. Lee County; “Court Rejects Lee’s Plan on Integration,” Fort Myers News-Press, 11 February, 1965.

[20]“District Court Suit Filed Asking Lee County School Desegregation Speed Up,” Fort Myers News-Press, 27 July, 1966; “Motion for Further Relief,” 25 July, 1966, Blalock v.Lee County.

[21]Ibid.

[22]“Switch in Integration Plan to Be Sought,” Fort Myers News-Press, 13 December, 1968.

[23] “Order by Judge Lieb, “ 12 February, 1969, Blalock v. Lee County.

[24]“Order Denying Defendant’s Motion for Amendment,” 9 June, 1969,” Ibid.

[25]Fort Myers News-Press, 11 June, 1969; Minutes, 16 June, 1969; “Board Considers Appeal in Desegregation Case,” Fort Myers News-Press, 13 August, 1969.

[26]“Notice of Compliance,” 31 December, 1969, Blalock v. Lee County. On 2 July, 1969, the school regulating authority in Lee County changed its official designation from Board of Public Instruction to District School Board of Lee County.