It was 1956, and the Florida Legislature was considering a bill to get around the U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring racial segregation in schools. Only one of the 90 House members voted against the bill — a young lawyer from Miami named Jack Orr.
“I believe segregation is morally wrong,’’ Orr told his stunned colleagues. “The existence of second-class citizens is repugnant to our great democratic principles. The fact that the custom is one of long standing makes it no less wrong.”
The vote and speech were greeted with strong criticism. Miami Herald political columnist John McDermott said Orr simply should have left the room and not voted. “His action seems to have been not only foolhardy but in conflict with the best interests of the county he serves,’’ McDermott wrote at the time.
Two years later, Orr was resoundingly defeated for reelection.
Today, John B. Orr Jr., who died of cancer 40 years ago July 25 after almost two years as Dade County mayor, is considered a hero of the civil-rights struggle in Florida. In 2001, the Florida Bar Foundation awarded him a posthumous Medal of Honor “for his courageous stand against a 1956 package of bills filed in the Florida Legislature whose purpose was to perpetuate school segregation.’’
Miami-Dade County Court Clerk Harvey Ruvin, who served with Orr on the County Commission, called him “intelligent and courageous. It was a shame that he passed away so quickly. He could have made a real mark on Dade County.’’
Orr was a complex man who endured a lot more than just political trials. “He was a leader of men. He infatuated women. When it came to his personal life, he had a remarkable ability to louse it up,’’ longtime friend Frank Buchanan said during a eulogy at Orr’s funeral at Vizcaya.
A heavy drinker, Orr managed to lick the habit in the mid-1960s and then became what Herald columnist Charles Whited called “Dade County’s least anonymous A.A. member.’’
Orr was married seven times to six different women, something he often joked about. Once when County Commissioner Beverly Phillips was getting rather shrill on some subject, Orr said, “Beverly, you sound like one of my ex-wives. In fact, you sound like all of my ex-wives."
But he could be serious about the subject, too. “I regard every one of my marriages as a failure,’’ he said in a Miami News interview shortly before he died. “This is an area where I still have substantial problems. Sometimes people treat it flippantly and regard me as a playboy. I don’t regard myself in that light at all.’’
After Orr’s loss in 1958 and an unsuccessful state Senate race in 1963, he didn’t return to public service until 1969 when State Attorney Richard Gerstein picked him to be the chief public-corruption prosecutor. His major triumph was the conviction of longtime Hialeah Mayor Henry Milander on three counts of grand larceny. (However, the judge withheld adjudication of guilt, and Milander got his job back.)
In 1972, Orr ran for Dade County mayor and defeated incumbent Steve Clark. It was the only loss of Clark’s long political career. Unlike today, the county then had a weak mayor/manager system. The county manager was in charge of day-to-day operations. The mayor was merely the chairman and had just one vote on the nine-member County Commission, which set policy.
But Orr quickly made it clear that he wasn’t weak. “He campaigned against the strong-mayor system, but that’s all he’s been since he was elected,’’ Commissioner Edward Graham complained at the time.
Orr’s leadership resulted in passage of a strong conflict-of-interest law and a generally tougher stand against high-density development. But probably his best-known initiative was the Art in Public Places law, which requires that 1.5 percent of the cost of every public project go for art — a program he had discovered during a trip to Hawaii.
He acknowledged that he could often rub his colleagues the wrong way. “I know I have a bad habit of making smart remarks,’’ he said in a 1973 Herald interview. “Like when [Commissioner] Joyce Goldberg says, ‘I hate to bring this up, but’ and I say, ‘Then don’t.’ ”
Ruvin remembered him as having “a pretty dominating personality, but he also was a fine gentleman.”
Orr’s A.A. contacts also came in handy. One winter there was a sudden shortage of housing for South Dade migrant workers. Orr started calling Washington and quickly located an A.A. member in a federal agency. Trailers for the migrants arrived in no time.
Orr began to feel ill early in 1974 and, a few months later, was diagnosed with cancer. He died at the age of 54 about two weeks after presiding over his final commission meeting.
His name now is on three public facilities in Miami-Dade County — a senior citizen housing project and, appropriately enough, two alcohol and drug rehab centers.
However, his greatest achievement was his lone vote against segregation more than a half century ago. As Tampa Bay Times columnist Martin Dyckman, who nominated Orr for the 2001 Bar Association award, wrote, “If he could accept the award in person, I suspect this is what he would say: It was the only thing to do.’’
Sam Jacobs, a retired Miami Herald reporter and editor, got to know Jack Orr while covering county government in the early 1970s.