She was a teenager when she joined the front lines of the civil-rights movement in Florida. She was the first black woman to practice law in Hillsborough County. She was a rare female president of the male-dominated National Bar Association.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa blazed another trail Monday as she became the first African-American woman to lead the Senate Democratic caucus. Her mission will be to help rebuild the Democratic Party one day at a time while pushing an alternative agenda on education, healthcare and many other issues for the next two years.
Joyner is the public face and voice of the 14-member Senate minority caucus. That means debating, fiercely disagreeing with and offering alternatives to the Republican majority’s agenda. It will usually mean losing, but fighting again the next day, and the next.
Joyner, 71, represents parts of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties in the Senate and has been in the Legislature since 2000. She grew up in Lakeland, went to Middleton High in Tampa and then to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, a rigidly segregated city in the 1960s, where she was jailed for taking part in civil-rights demonstrations.
She is old enough to remember a time when black people drank from “colored” water fountains and could not sit at the same lunch counters or in theaters as whites did.
After she got her law degree from FAMU in 1968, no law firm would hire her, so she opened her own practice. When she went to Tallahassee to work for the only African-American legislator, Joe Lang Kershaw, “He and I were the only two blacks in the Capitol who weren’t maids or janitors.”
Five of the 13 senators who voted to make her leader Monday are black, and they all knew that what they would hear in the Senate chamber was vintage Joyner: blunt, determined and highly critical of almost everything Republicans stand for.
Also in the audience were her college sorority sisters, along with family members from Texas, two friends who are state legislators in Georgia and Nan Rich, a former state senator from Broward who ran for governor.
Even her Tampa hairdresser was in the visitors gallery.
“It’s a bit of a job keeping a woman beautiful, you know,” Joyner told the crowd.
Sonja Bexley, retired after three decades as a Tampa city employee and seated at the big desk labeled “JOYNER,” cried tears of joy for her younger sister. She said she wished their parents could have seen it.
A half-dozen Republican senators also attended the hour-long event as a bipartisan sign of respect. But not one of them found much in Joyner’s speech worthy of their applause.
Joyner said Republicans are a party of the rich that has built a Berlin Wall of ideology that keeps many Floridians “at the edge of the endurable.”
She then cited issues she has championed throughout her legislative career: affordable healthcare, easing barriers to civil rights for ex-felons, reducing mandatory prison terms for nonviolent offenders and raising the minimum wage for the working poor.
“All these issues individually and collectively can bring people already stretched to the breaking point to the edge of the endurable. But it doesn’t need to be that way,” Joyner said.
Recalling her segregated childhood, she said: “I learned deep down in my heart the constant ache for freedom that some enjoyed, but many more were denied.”
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said it made no difference to Joyner that top Republicans were in the audience.
“It’s not an act with Arthenia,” he said. “Nothing intimidates her.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, Ga., an ally of Joyner’s in a national black lawmakers’ group, said the Senate Democratic caucus is in good hands.
“If you’re in a fight, Arthenia’s a good person to be in the foxhole with,” he said.
Steve Bousquet is the Tallahassee bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times.