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Floridians still fight for civil rights

Published June 6, 2004

The Mirror Lake Lyceum in St. Petersburg is a splendidly refurbished former church where a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan was once a guest speaker. Thursday night, the stage was held by a black woman with gray hair, dark glasses and stories to tell that are at once the shame and the pride of the state of Florida.

She is Patricia Stephens Due, who has needed the dark glasses since she was tear-gassed 44 years ago. It happened as she and 1,000 fellow students at Florida A&M University were marching to protest the arrests of some of them, including Due, for having sought service at a Woolworth lunch counter. They never made it. A phalanx of police blocked them at the railroad tracks that separated white Tallahassee from black Tallahassee.

"I want you," said one of the cops, recognizing her from the lunch-counter sit-in, and he shot the tear gas directly into her face. Blinded and helpless, she was rescued by a student whose name she never learned. An Army veteran, he knew how to cope with tear gas. He led her to a nearby church as the screams of the other students rang in their ears.

She and four others spent 49 days in jail for the lunch-counter incident, refusing to be bailed out while their convictions were appealed. It was the first of many arrests and jailings for her. The courts were no help, but public opinion eventually changed, and so did the laws. Black people don't go to jail in Florida any longer for wanting to ride in the front of the bus, or eat at the same tables with white people. No one shoots at them these days or throws rocks through their windows for conducting voter registration drives. All the credit belongs to the courage and sacrifice of people like Due.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg honored Due and dozens of other veterans of the civil rights movement in Florida at a four-day conference that ended Saturday. Among them were the Rev. Henry Marion Steele, whose father, the late Rev. C.K. Steele, led the famous Tallahassee bus boycott of 1956-57. Steele and his family had to abandon their home for nearly two years. Today, Tallahassee's city bus depot bears his name.

Another conference participant was Israel S. Dresner, of Wayne, N.J., who pridefully bears the title of "most arrested rabbi in America" for civil rights activities that including trying unsuccessfully to integrate Tallahassee's new airport. Later, he was at Selma.

"The Freedom Movement freed me from all of my fears and suspicions," Dresner said, "because, after the Holocaust every Jew feared every Christian. I found real Christians in the Freedom Movement."

Considering how much has changed, the USF conference ought to have been a celebration. And to a large extent it was.

But there was also a sense of foreboding that many of the apparent gains were illusory, as in the massive white flight that followed the integration of many public schools in the Deep South; that real victories are being undone, as in the revival of so-called "freedom of choice" plans in counties whose schools are being relieved of federal court supervision; that poor people, blacks especially, are still getting the worst of it in jobs, health care, education and, most appallingly, in society's apparent preference to incarcerate fearsome numbers of young black men rather than spend the smaller sums it would take to educate them properly.

That's not what Patricia Due had in mind when she was willing to go to jail, and even to die if necessary, for the sake of the human dignities that whites took for granted.

"We must not ever, ever let this happen again," she said Thursday night at the place where a grand dragon once spoke, "and if we do not get out and do something, it will." In 1963, she said, she promised Gadsden's blacks that if they voted, their votes would count. But in 2000, thousands of their votes were discarded.

"If we don't make a difference this time," she warned, "we won't have to hear what happened in the '40s and '50s, because we'll be reliving it."

That wasn't hyperbole. The gains that the civil rights movement won with so much blood, toil, tears and sweat are in jeopardy because there are not enough votes in Congress, or in most state legislatures, to secure them with solid investments in education, health and economic opportunity. The legacies of racism remain to be overcome.

The votes aren't there because of the cunning and cynical ways in which voting districts have been redrawn ostensibly to enhance civil rights but in reality to betray the cause. These schemes exploited the ambitions of too many self-centered black politicians and the credulity of too many judges. In Florida, for example, for every new black voting district the Republicans have helped to create, they expected - and got - two new safely Republican districts.

The last and most urgent great civil rights battle, for proportional representation that guarantees meaningful competition, has yet to be waged. America's time is running out.

[Last modified June 5, 2004, 23:52:18]

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