Richard Ervin and the Gradualist Approach to Desegregation

On May 12, 1955, Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin submitted an amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court proposing a gradual approach to school integration. The court had just recently ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The court chose to shelve the case for a year, citing a need for further study on how best to implement the decision. Sensing an opportunity to preserve segregation, acting Florida Governor Charley Johns enlisted the expertise of Attorney General Ervin, State Superintendent of Education Thomas D. Bailey, and Florida State University sociologist Lewis Killian to compile a report outlining the “practical problems involved [with desegregation] and recommendations” for implementation.  The Florida Cabinet approved a $10, 000 budget for the study, which began in the summer of 1954.  Killian began by seeking the opinions of elected officials, journalists, educators, and police chiefs on the subject. Approximately 8,000 surveys reached a biracial sample of community leaders, with a total response rate of fifty one percent.

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools  (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The responses from African-Americans revealed several prevalent fears associated with desegregating Florida’s public schools, including “withdrawal of white children from the public schools, the maintenance of discipline in mixed classes by Negro [sic.] teachers, refusal to employ Negro teachers for mixed schools, and difficulty in obtaining white teachers” as the “outstanding potential problems found to be expected.” White responses emphasized similar concerns over such matters as maintaining discipline in mixed classrooms, questionable cooperation of white parents, and violent outbreaks.  In a telling statistic, seventy-five percent of African-American participants supported the Brown ruling and believe the majority of whites did also.  In contrast, a similar percentage of whites thought blacks largely supported segregation. Armed with Killian’s results, Attorney General Ervin made a strong case for gradualism. After a year of delay, the United States Supreme Court reconvened in spring 1955 to clarify the federal enforcement of desegregation in a session aptly nicknamed Brown II.  The court considered the research of ten states regarding school desegregation, lauding Attorney General Ervin’s brief as a particularly strong resource. On May 31, 1955, after much deliberation, the justices handed down their decision.  The court mandated that compliance with the Brown decision should occur with “a prompt and reasonable start,” carried out with “all deliberate speed.”  The vague language coupled with Ervin’s push for gradualism foreshadowed the long battle for school desegregation in post-Brown Florida.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

 

 

LeRoy Collins and the Brown Decision

Saturday, May 17th marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark decision of the United State Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The unanimous ruling overturned the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which had served as the legal basis for Jim Crow segregation in public facilities across the South, especially in the public schools. The court argued that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and that African American children attending segregated schools were deprived of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Most elected officials in Florida, as in other Southern states, recoiled from the Supreme Court’s decision and explored their options for keeping Jim Crow firmly in place. The state first responded by asking the Supreme Court to stay its ruling while it studied the potential effects of desegregation with the help of social scientists.

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at "The Grove" in Tallahassee. "The Grove," built around 1840 by Florida's territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at “The Grove” in Tallahassee. “The Grove,” built around 1840 by Florida’s territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins, who took office in January 1955, faced a difficult situation. On the one hand, he recognized that extremism on the segregation issue could cost Florida in terms of tourism and business growth. On the other hand, state legislators favoring complete retention of Jim Crow without compromise were powerful and vocal. Collins attempted to chart a middle course that would preserve school segregation while also retaining Florida’s image as a progressive state. In 1957, he asked the Legislature to approve a committee on race relations that would help maintain domestic order and improve living standards for African Americans. Florida lawmakers responded by passing a resolution alleging that the U.S. Supreme Court had overstepped its mandate in ruling school segregation illegal. The resolution called on the State (in essence, Collins) to “interpose its powers between its people and the effort of the said Court to assert an unlawful dominion over them.” The full text of the resolution is available as part of our Significant Documents exhibit.

First page of the Florida Legislature's

First page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution (May 1957).

Collins was infuriated by the measure because it was exactly the kind of extreme reaction he feared would hurt Florida in the long run. Because the legislation was merely a resolution and not a bill designed to become law, the governor could not veto it. He did, however, have the opportunity to sign the resolution when it came to his office as a matter of procedure. In place of his signature, Collins filled the middle of the page with a lengthy and dramatic protest against the resolution, calling it an “evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria.”

The final page of the Florida Legislature's

The final page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution, with Governor Collins’ protest written around the space for his signature (May 1957).

The full text of Governor Collins’ statement:

This concurrent resolution of ‘Interposition’ crosses the Governor’s desk as a matter of routine. I have no authority to veto it. I take this means however to advise the student of government, who may examine this document in the archives of the state in the years to come that the Governor of Florida expressed open and vigorous opposition thereto. I feel that the U. S. Supreme Court has improperly usurped powers reserved to the states under the constitution. I have joined in protesting such and in seeking legal means of avoidance. But if this resolution declaring the decisions of the court to be ‘null and void’ is to be taken seriously, it is anarchy and rebellion against the nation which must remain ‘indivisible under God’ if it is to survive. Not only will I not condone ‘interposition’ as so many have sought me to do, I decry it as an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria. If history judges me right this day, I want it known that I did my best to avert this blot. If I am judged wrong, then here in my own handwriting and over my signature is the proof of guilt to support my conviction.

Although Collins’ statement captured a great deal of attention, the Legislature was unmoved. In the same session, it passed a law allowing schools to be closed in the event the federal government used force to desegregate them. Florida’s public schools remained almost completely segregated until after 1960.
Teachers, for information on how to use the resources of Florida Memory pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement in your classroom, visit our Black History Month resource page and the Civil Rights Movement in Florida learning unit.