In Florida, questions about racial violence always seem to hover.
The Trayvon Martin case in Sanford reverberated around the nation earlier this year in discussions about what it signified for race relations. More recently, leaders at a state park have struggled to decide how to cope with the accusation that the park is named after a family that participated in one of the most notorious lynchings in Florida’s history.
That state park issue was sparked by the recent publication of The Beast in Florida: A History of Anti-Black Violence, by Miami author Marvin Dunn, a retired Florida International University professor.
His book, published by University Press of Florida, focuses on the period from the post-Civil War 1870s to 1951, when civil rights leader Harry T. Moore was killed by a bomb — an action that finally caused federal authorities to start a full-fledged investigation in Florida that signaled that Washington wanted to end unbridled racial violence in the state.
What follows is a question-and-answer session with the author, edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Among southern states, how does Florida’s history of racial violence compare?
A: In terms of blacks as a portion of population, Florida was the worst of all of them. There were numerically more lynchings in in Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia, but as a percentage of population, Florida had the worst record.
A: When the Civil War ended, a lot of Confederates floated down into Florida. Land was available. Florida was a relative wilderness. There wasn’t a lot of law enforcement, and a large number of blacks in Florida had not been enslaved – black Seminoles, Maroons [runaway slaves]. Whites coming in had a sentiment that there were blacks who needed to be controlled, made submissive. That meant we were a very dangerous state for blacks.
Q: Some historians think the whites’ major motive was economic dominance.
A: That’s not my view. Whites had all the good jobs locked up any way. Lynching was essentially a response to three things: Accusations of a black man attacking a white woman, which led to the most egregious cases; a black person accused of assaulting or killing a white police officer; and a third would be over voting or issues of power.
Economic competition didn’t cause people to dismember blacks, mutilate people the way they did in really disgusting ways, and then go to church the next day.
Q: The word “lynching” popped up on talk radio and television when George Zimmerman was on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. What does “lynching” mean historically?
A: The killing must have taken place at the hands of two or more people. It must be extralegal – outside the court system – and the motive must be honor or revenge. Trayvon Martin was a murder. It was not a lynching.
Q: A lot of us in South Florida think we’re not part of the South, but you have a photograph of the Ku Klux Klan marching in Miami in the 1920s.
A: The Klan was very active in South Florida. We had numerous blacks beaten by the police, run out of town by the police, maimed by the police, and even a few killed by the police – with no consequences for it. Keep in mind that when the city of Miami was founded in 1896, the police essentially were white guys from farms in Georgia who were brought down to police the black community, essentially – and they had a free license to enforce the law as they saw fit. You look at Miami-Dade County through the 1920s and 1930s and there was a disturbing amount of racial violence. And Reuben Stacey was lynched in Fort Lauderdale in 1935 after a white woman accused him of attacking her.