As a child growing up in St. Augustine, I was surrounded by history; 400 years of it. But a major part of the Ancient City’s history was unfolding when I reached high school in the mid-60s. A white teenager working after school as a motel bellhop, I was unaware of the early work by Dr. Robert Hayling and the Foot Soldiers for equal rights in the city. And, I did not know, at first, that the Civil Rights Movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was on its way there.
Soon though, city officials, tied to segregation and resisting conversation, set St. Augustine on a path to national scorn. At the motel where I worked, we learned we were being “watched,” a form of intimidation against providing lodging to those who were part of the movement. Protests and marches were met with violence, and by arrests that reflected prejudice. Peaceful wade-ins at the beach drew attacks and state law enforcement personnel had to be sent in. The state attorney, from Daytona Beach, had to use the grand jury to do what the local city officials refused to do: find a way to move the city forward – through litigation, and eventually conversation and negotiation.
Those historic days helped shape my sense of justice and equality, and cemented for me the realization that, although equality and access to justice are guaranteed by the Constitution, it takes work and often struggle to make them real. Those days focused me on fighting for justice. Those who took a stand in St. Augustine made a difference; they helped get civil rights legislation through a reluctant Congress. They also sought equal rights under the law by turning to the courts, including the courtroom of Judge Bryan Simpson, the namesake of the federal courthouse in Jacksonville. My decision to go to law school and to practice law was made during those days.
Barriers built by prejudice, barriers that prejudge people and hinder them in education, physical and mental health services, jobs, housing, voting, and access to representation, still exist though they are often hidden. Taking action against such wrongs has been a continuing focus of time, talent and treasure for me over the years. My support and my lifetime membership in the NAACP came from what I saw and learned growing up, at a time when I could do nothing meaningful about the ugliness that was happening; and it came from what I have seen and learned of the work of the NAACP and its continuing efforts for equal rights and equal justice. In that sense, black history and inclusiveness cannot be a once-a-year focus. Focus on equal rights and equal justice means constant attention to what is right and what is wrong in our community, and standing ready to take action for change. I continue to stand ready.