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The Civil Rights Movement in Tallahassee Florida

A review by Jo Freeman published in Gulf South Historial Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Fall 2001, pp. 101-2.

Rabby, Glenda Alice, The Pain and the Promise: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Tallahassee, Florida, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, 330 pp. ISBN: 0-8203-2051-X

This is an excellent book. By focusing on one small city, the author allows readers to experience "the pain and the promise" of the civil rights movement through the lives and experiences of the participants. She brings the people to life and goes beyond the headlines to let us see the consequences, good and bad, of the movement. In the 1950s and 1960s the Florida panhandle was as much a part of the deep South as Alabama and Georgia and almost as resistant to change. Even with the combined weight of the U.S. Supreme Court, a mobilized black population, and a few moderate whites, desegregation took several decades to achieve and came largely at the expense of the black population, particularly its youth and community leaders.
As in Alabama, the first public protest was over the busses. And as in Montgomery, the incident which precipitated it was not planned. In May of 1956 two young women simply sat down next to a white woman and were arrested. Inspired by the six-month-old boycott in Montgomery, Tallahassee's ten thousand black citizens refused to ride until they could sit in any available seat. Although the boycott ended the following year without a clear cut victory or a court order, it empowered the black community.
The national civil rights organizations were quick to see the possibilities, and to offer support. CORE became the principle direct action organization while the NAACP supplied lawyers to handle the many criminal cases that came with mass protest. But it was the local Inter-Civic Council which provided the leadership, and the students, mostly from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) who provided the bodies, gave generously of their time, and took the risks.
Among the students it was two sisters, Priscilla and Patricia Stephens who became the key organizers. They mobilized the FAMU students, encouraged them to stay in jail when arrested, and kept up their spirits when suspended from school. Under their leadership FAMU students participated in the boycott, freedom rides and sit-ins. They also worked with some bold white students from neighboring Florida State University to begin the slow process of integration.
Unlike Alabama and Georgia, Florida governor Leroy Collins believed the state should follow the law as mandated by the US Supreme Court. Serving from 1953 to 1961, he looked for ways to make the pill of integration easier for Southern whites to swallow, rather than counseling regurgitation as did so many of his contemporaries. But even a moderate Governor would only stick his neck out so far because there were so many politicians ready to cut his head off. When he counseled slow compliance, the legislature passed a law permitting local districts to close the public schools rather than integrate them. His veto was barely sustained. The three governors who succeeded Collins were all strident segregationists.
While segregated schools were the first public institution to be declared unconstitutional by the Court, they were the last to go. The federal district court -- particularly Judge Harrold Carswell -- charged with overseeing the Court's order, and the local officials charged with enforcing the law, dragged their feet. They beefed up black schools that had been starved for decades and put the burden of switching to white schools on black students and their parents. Not until 1970 did the district court order the creation of a unitary school system and even then implementation was slow. It was the federal government, not the state, that made the local districts obey the law. With school integration came the removal or demotion of black principles, coaches and teachers and the loss of black schools as unifying community institutions.
While Rabby described the consequences for the black community of the civil rights movement and integration, she doesn't tell us much about what happened to the brave individuals who risked their lives and careers to bring about change. This is the one big hole in the book. Since she interviewed many of the activists of the period, she should have told us their fate as well. Did they benefit at all from the movement they sacrificed for, or did they only pay the price? Before the book comes out in paper, she should add an epilogue.