Racial Incidents Have Led to Policy Changes in Florida's Past
April 09, 2012 | WMFE - The Sanford Police Department cited Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self defense gun law as the reason they didn't arrest crime watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in February. Now there are calls for review and possible repeal of the controversial policy. But this is not the first time a racially charged death has led to calls for changes in state law. Florida has a long history of such incidents.
Harry T. Moore, the first president of the NAACP in Brevard County pioneered the use of the legislative system to affect change. He succeeded in pressuring lawmakers to investigate lynchings, make changes in voter registration and promote progressive housing and employment policies for Florida blacks in the 1940s.
He and his wife Harriette died after their home in Mims was bombed on Christmas Day 1951. An exact replica of the house now stands on the site.
An investigation in 2006 concluded that members of the Central Florida Ku Klux Klan were responsible but no one was ever formally charged.
Anthony Major is director of the African-American studies program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He says if the Moore’s deaths resulted in any changes, those changes came much later.
“I don’t recall any law that w as changed. First of all the killers were never found.” Major said.
But the Moore’s deaths caused an international outcry, with protests at the United Nations against violence in the South. Many say the bombing was one of the incidents that eventually led to widespread protests against racial inequality in Florida later in the 1950s and ‘60’s.
Other, more recent, incidents led directly to changes in Florida law. State Representative Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Orlando, is a noted central Florida historian. She says in the 1970s and 80’s, Florida law allowed police to shoot to kill anyone, presumed to be a felon, who ran away from police.
Thompson says the “Fleeing Felons” law empowered police officers to be judge, jury and executioner.
“There were several incidents of “fleeing felons” being shot in Orlando.” Thompson said. “And so that law was changed so that you could not use deadly force in those instances. You could only use deadly force if your life was imperiled. “
Thompson also cites the 2006 case of Martin Lee Anderson. The young black man was abused and killed by guards in one of Florida’s juvenile “Boot Camps.” The state’s Sheriffs and juvenile court judges touted the military-style camps as a way to rehabilitate young offenders. Geraldine Thompson had just been elected to the state legislature when hearings into the death came before the House.
“There were videotapes of him being kicked and beaten by the people at the boot camp who were state employees who were supposed to supervise and protect this young man, Martin Lee Anderson.” Thompson said. “And that led to the whole boot camp system being dismantled in the state of Florida.”
Whether or not the Trayvon Martin shooting leads to policy changes, UCF Professor Anthony Major says it has already caused African-American parents to rethink the safety of their own kids.
“I have a 15-year old and I know have to teach him the same things my grandmother had to teach me in the ‘40s about how to stay alive in America, to make sure that these things don’t happen or he doesn’t leave home one day and not come back.”
And Major says the Sanford incident has reignited interest among young people over the role of race in America.
“Hopefully this incident, now that we see what’s going on and the young folks can see that their lives are in danger, maybe it will cause something to change and maybe they will cause change in this society because that’s where the future lies.” Major said.
Back in Mims where outrage over the murder of Harry and Harriette Moore helped to launch the modern civil rights movement, Representative Thompson says there is an ironic connection to the current controversy over the death of Trayvon Martin.
“When the bomb exploded under his bedroom in 1951, there was no hospital that would treat him in that area.” Thompson said. “He and his wife, Harriette, were transported to Sanford where there was a black doctor who would treat him but because he had lost so much blood, he died that night and his wife died nine days later.”
Thompson and Major agree that legal and public policy changes are important but, they say, changing hearts and minds is even more critical.