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    Orr's deserving recognition

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    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 17, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- If Janet Reno really means to run for governor, there's probably no one on earth who could change her mind. I can think of one departed soul who might, but he'd probably say, "Janet, it's your call."

    His name was John B. Orr Jr., an old family friend, and she has often talked about the advice he gave as she was running for the Florida House of Representatives 29 years ago. As she tells it:

    "He told me, "Keep on doing what you believe to be right, don't pussyfoot, don't equivocate, don't talk out of both sides of your mouth and you'll wake up feeling good. If you pussyfoot and equivocate and talk out of both sides of your mouth you'll wake up the next morning feeling miserable.' "

    "I did not feel entirely good the next morning," she says, "because I'd lost that election, but I remembered what Jack Orr told me and I've remembered it ever since."

    Jack Orr knew about losing elections, too.

    In 1956, he was a first-term House member from Dade County with a promising career in law and a bright future in politics if nobody found out about the NAACP membership card in his wallet.

    But Florida was as rigidly segregated as any Southern state, and many of his colleagues were frothing to defy the U.S. Supreme Court's school desegregation rulings. Gov. LeRoy Collins, fearful of what they might do, had summoned a special session to enact legislation crafted by a committee that he had appointed. Though they were not "last resort" bills, they were still segregationist. Orr was the only member of either House to vote against them.

    A few days later he took the House floor to explain his votes. The Times reported that his speech "received only deep silence."

    He said he favored gradual integration of the schools, as the court had ordered, and that "had we devoted as much energy, time and talent to discovering means to live under the law instead of in defiance of it, we could have discovered a way.

    "I believe segregation is morally wrong," he continued. ". . . 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. Surely not many of you would argue today that slavery was morally justifiable and yet this was a custom of long standing."

    He said the Fabisinski bills ultimately would fail (as ultimately they did, thanks to the determination of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) and that "interposition," a states' rights theory that Collins also deplored, wouldn't work either.

    "Interposition is that doctrine which requires one side to put on blue uniforms and the other side gray ones," he said. "We tried that before and I doubt that Gen. (Sumter) Lowry (who had run for governor) will be able to accomplish what Gen. Lee failed to do."

    Worst of all, he said, was the example "of hypocrisy and deceit that the Legislature was displaying to Florida's children."

    No legislator spoke in his support, though some told him privately that they knew he was right. Some of his friends, fearful of hostility evident in the galleries, escorted him from the floor. Back home in Miami, his young son Tom -- now a resident of Tarpon Springs -- wondered why his father's campaign manager was suddenly driving him to and from school.

    Orr was re-elected despite the speech, but only because he had already been re-nominated and the Republicans did not have a candidate. He lost two years later to an avowed segregationist, lost a 1963 race for the Florida Senate and did not reattain public office until being elected Metropolitan Dade County mayor in 1972. He died of cancer two years later.

    Orr's remarks "were brilliant," recalls Mallory Horne, a colleague who later became House speaker and Senate president, and who had taken the floor to try to refute them. Orr's purpose, Horne maintains, was to invite the federal courts to overturn the legislation by "ascribing to the Fabisinski Committee and us who were about to pass it . . . a segregationist objective only. . . .

    "He was that smart a guy," Horne said in a recent interview. ". . . We stayed in touch until he died."

    Whatever his purpose, the speech made Orr the first white politician in Florida to denounce segregation. Four years later, amid a crisis brought on by student demonstrations, Collins himself went on statewide television to say that he considered lunch counter segregation to be "unfair and morally wrong."

    Orr's courage was honored in Congress and elsewhere but never by his own state.

    This week, however, the Florida Bar Foundation will commemorate him with its 2001 Medal of Honor award, and perhaps the plaque will eventually be displayed in the Capitol. It will be the sixth posthumous award; there was one to Collins in 1991. Patrick G. Emmanuel, a long-time leader of the Florida Bar, will be honored also.

    I take some satisfaction in this, having nominated Orr for the award. But, of course, that was an easy thing for me to do. What Orr did in 1956 was the hard thing to do.

    But if he could accept the award in person, I suspect this is what he would say:

    It was the only thing to do.

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