Miami civil rights leaders discuss their role in history


A group of prominent Miami pioneers gathered to discuss their efforts to fight for equal rights for African-Americans in the city and integrate public spaces.

The pioneers around the table each had a story to tell, recounting their unique experiences of living and growing up in a segregated South Florida.

Garth Reeves, a World War II veteran and former publisher of The Miami Times, remembered trying to integrate a Miami Springs country club that only allowed black golfers to use the golf course on Mondays.

Reeves and then-NAACP President Theodore Gibson filed a lawsuit against the club. They were rebuffed at nearly every turn, he said.

“We got turned down by the state court, municipal court, the appeals court; every court we ever went to,” said Reeves, who joined a panel of well-known South Florida civil-rights soldiers Wednesday night at the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens.

The event was HistoryMiami’s first Museum Forum event of the year and attracted a panel that included Reeves, H.T. Smith, a civil-rights attorney and Florida International University professor; Enid Pinkney, founder of the African American Committee of Dade Heritage Trust; and Thelma Gibson, founder of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Miami-Dade.

As for the Miami Springs golf-course issue, the NAACP persisted and drummed up enough attention to get Thurgood Marshall involved — before he was a United States Supreme Court justice. The case made it to the Supreme Court. In 1957, the club dropped the Monday-only limitation against black golfers.

Reeves also told a story about the local NAACP’s efforts to integrate Miami’s beaches. Out of the 28 city beaches, only Virginia Key was open to African Americans.

The NAACP decided to take a stand at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne, asking city leaders to explain why they weren’t allowed to visit the beaches.

They never got a clear answer. Reeves and Oscar Range, another NAACP member, decided to test the ban. They went into the water and swam around for about 20 minutes without any problems.

“From that day, we passed the word in the community that things were different,” Reeves said. They encouraged community members to “go and try it out,” Reeves said. “And people went and ever since that day everything was smooth.”

Reeves’ stories were among many the panel shared.

Pinkney spoke about her work to integrate the community around Booker T. Washington High School and how she met boxer Joe Louis as a high-school student.

Smith spoke about leading a 1990 business boycott of Miami in support of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress after Mandela was snubbed by some local officials during a visit after he offered his support for Fidel Castro, Moammar Gadahfi, and Yasser Arafat.

Even though the event allowed him to meet Mandela and be “kissed by history,” Smith said, it went beyond his efforts and he applauded the other panelists that predated him.

“I was on the tail end of the most vicious, hateful part of segregation in Miami,” said Smith.

When an audience member asked about how the community can reignite the spirit of the civil-rights movement to combat violence in South Florida, Smith proposed taking action and challenging city leaders.

“One of the main impediments to the business development in our community is crime and we’ve got to stop apologizing for criminals,” Smith said. “We’ve got to take control of the police and we’ve got to take control of crime. Until the community demands it, it’s not going to happen.”

“We have to give our young people more opportunities to be positive,” said Pinkney.

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