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.
Q: Some of these lynchings in Florida seem to be mobs on a rampage. Like Newberry in 1916, when six blacks were lynched, including a pregnant woman, because a white constable was killed, allegedly by a black man named Boisey Long.
A: The Dudley family really led that mob. Mrs. Dudley was a very powerful matriarch of that family, and she was close to the constable. She really sicced her boys on the family of Boisey Long and the people they thought had helped him. It became a particularly nasty moment, and Newberry is very quick to say that we should just forget it.
I went to the Dudley Farm Historic State Park, which shows what Cracker life used to be like. You have people dressed in period clothing. I showed the staff the photo of the four Dudley brothers standing proudly over the lynching victims. A state ranger gasped when he saw the photo. Later, I spoke to the whole staff at the park about the incident. And they said we’re not going to hide it. Now, I haven’t been back to see what they did.
(Later, this reporter talked to park manager Morgan Tyrone, who said the farm was intended to show how the farm operated in a previous era and really wasn’t a commemoration of the Dudley family. After much discussion, park management decided that if visitors ask about the 1916 lynchings, staff are instructed to tell them about Dunn’s description of the family responsibility, but rangers will also talk about other reports that say the Dudley family protected blacks in 1916 who came to their farm trying to escape the violence.)
Q: One of the big surprises for me in the book was how little state and federal leaders did to stop the lynchings.
A: The best example of that is the Claude Neal lynching in 1934. It was announced at least 12 hours in advance and put on the radio. People in Nebraska and Iowa and California knew that this was happening, and authorities didn’t do anything to stop the lynching or the terrible mutilation. After that, a great opposition rose up in the country to the lynchings, and they declined after that. They didn’t stop but they declined.
Q: There was a demand Roosevelt’s administration investigate the Neal lynching, but nothing happened. Why?
A: The Southern political power block in Washington was extraordinarily effective in advancing the Southern agenda and suppressing legislation that Southerners didn’t like. Even Claude Pepper when he was in the Senate voted against the anti-lynching law.
Q: How does the Trayvon Martin case fit into this history?
A: It fits in the sense that Mr. Zimmerman suspected that a person, just because he was black, was up to no good. Now, that’s a general perception that goes back a couple of centuries. Black people not known in a neighborhood will be challenged – what are you doing here? So the extent that Zimmerman challenged Martin and probably wouldn’t have challenged a white boy of the same age speaks to this legacy of prejudice and stereotyping. To that extent, I think it’s connected.
Is Sanford worse than any other part of Florida? I grew up 17 miles from Sanford, in DeLand. My father died in Sanford in 2001. I spent a decade going back and forth between Miami and Sanford. Sanford is no worse than any other small Southern town. It is not a hotbed of rabid racial bigots any more so than if it had happened in Homestead.
I don’t think it’s fair to history to over-argue what happened to Trayvon. Saying it’s an indication of race relations going bad in this country, that it reflects that every black youngster is in danger of being shot by a white – I think that’s much too broad a net being cast over race relations in this country. I think it was a tragedy, motivated in part by race.
Q: Which case sticks to your memory the most?
A: Willie James Howard, in 1944. That’s the one that tugged the most at my heart. It’s a love story and that resonates with kids the most these days, when I go around making presentations to high schools. [James, 15, was tied up and forced to jump into a river because he had written an adoring letter to a white girl in Live Oak.)] He was killed for his feelings. In Live Oak, they still deny it. I went in and talked to the publisher of the newspaper, and she said no no, that was an accidental drowning. But his hand and feet were bound. Denial is still a part of the reality in trying to revisit this history.
Q: In the last sentence in the book, you write: “The Beast is not dead but merely bound up, perhaps temporarily.” Do you mean Florida or the larger society?
A: Society in general. We are not nearly as civilized as we prefer to think we are. I think it would take very little for Muslims to get lynched in this country, for illegal immigrants to get attacked in this country.