Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Race: Can We Finally Discuss It?

By Rick Outzen

Race is a non-starter for most conversations in Pensacola. Whites’ eyes glaze over when they think anyone is “playing the race card.” For them, racism ended with integration of the public schools. Blacks see it differently, but what’s the use in talking to a brick wall.

Dr. Michael Butler, a history professor at Flager College, thinks it’s time we have an open, honest conversation about race, not only in Escambia County, but across the South.

His latest book, “Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980,” is definitely a conversation starter. The book, which was published this month, offers a new perspective on the years after the Civil Rights era and discusses why the gains in racial equality have not fulfilled the early promises of the movement.

Butler appeared on News Talk 1370 WCOA’s “Pensacola Speaks” to talk about the book and why he chose to research Escambia County.

“Escambia County has a unique story to tell,” said Butler. “As I started digging into the history that was behind a federal report that I found on police brutality in Escambia County in 1980, I realized that Escambia County’s story is not unique in the South, that what happens in Escambia County, what happens in Pensacola, is very similar to what many other Southern communities had to go through in the period beyond integration.”

Butler researched to find out what happened in communities after the reporters left, after the civil rights laws were passed, after activists went to the next place where they were summoned. How do black and white communities in a town live with each other? How do they pick up the pieces, and how do they move forward in the aftermath of this period of integration?

“Escambia County I think encapsulated a lot of what I suspected happened during that period, but I think it’s for those reasons that this particular book, and Escambia County specifically, that I took it into the project that it ultimately became,” he said.

Newcomers to Pensacola, both African-Americans and whites, often joke that parts of Pensacola and Escambia seem to be10 years behind the rest of the country when it comes to race relations.

Butler said, “I’ve learned that the violent confrontations that we read about and saw in places like Birmingham and Selma and Little Rock, for the most part, those were the exceptions and not the rules. Most of the places during this period that had to integrate, it wasn’t incredibly smooth, but it was relatively peaceful. That’s exactly what happened in Pensacola.”

The history professor said the sit-in in downtown Pensacola that was commemorated with a marker last year wasn’t peaceful, but it was relatively smooth and over quickly. However, Butler believes the sit-ins and other peaceful protests of the sixties created lingering resentments that bubbled to the surface a decade later.

Two episodes represent the pinnacle of a lot of those animosities: the riots at Escambia High School over the Rebel mascot and the shooting of a black man, Wendall Blackwell, by an Escambia County deputy that led to the conviction of Rev. H.K. Matthews for leading the protests (Inweekly, “A Cycle of Injustice,” 3/15/10).

The Escambia High riots drew national attention.

“Walter Cronkite actually covered it on the CBS Evening News,” said Butler. “It reached national proportions. Not only did you have one riot where four people were shot, not only do you have beatings, not only do you have intimidation, not only do you have all of the negative, nasty things that go along with racial unrest, but you also had a rejuvenation of the United Klans of America (UKA) during that period.”

The shooting of Blackwell also sparked tempers that Butler believes led to an overreaction by the white power structure.

“I found in Pensacola that the Blackwell shooting was not one episode in which the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and NAACP were looking for something to complain about, as was often said, but it was the latest and the most egregious episode in a series of conflicts between local blacks, and particularly the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

When blacks staged a protest rally outside the sheriff’s office, Rev. H. K. Matthews and Rev. B. J. Brooks were charged with felony extortion. Brooks agreed to discontinue protests and got five years probation, but Matthews was sentenced to five years hard labor in state prison because he refused to the stipulation. Later Gov. Reuben Askew granted both men clemency.

The violent overreaction by whites in both incidents happened because the black freedom struggle didn’t end with passage of a few laws, according to Butler.

“When laws are passed, it doesn’t mean that racism dies,” he said. “I think that’s not just Escambia County’s problem, that’s not just Florida’s problem. That is a national problem.”

He added, “There are a lot of people who fail to recognize that, and that’s one of the reasons, the subtitle of my book is not, ‘The Civil Rights Movement of Escambia County, Florida.” It’s ‘The Black Freedom Struggle’ because freedom is a constant struggle. It doesn’t end with legislation. It doesn’t end with the death of Dr. King. It doesn’t even end with the sentence of Reverend Matthews. All of these are definitely watershed moments in a continuous black freedom struggle, but it’s not the end of the movement.”

Butler believes that with the passage of the Civil Rights legislation in the sixties that the white power structure basically said to the black community, “The movement’s over. You people got what you wanted. You got laws passed. You have affirmative action plans. You have all of these opportunities. What else is there for you to complain about? The movement’s over. Get over it.”

However, the African-American community sees it differently, according to the history professor. The passage of the laws was just one step towards rectifying a lot of discrepancies that exist in society.

“It’s not the end,” he said. “It’s actually the beginning, so you have two groups of people who are both in some ways very, very genuine in what they believe, but particularly those in power tend to believe that there’s no racism.”

The whites point out that more African Americans are being hired as sheriff’s deputies. The fire department is integrated, so are the public schools. Blacks talk about the differences in the graduation rates between white students and black students, as well as income, housing and wage discrepancies.

Butler said he hopes his book will start a dialogue between whites and blacks about these issues.

“That’s the purpose of the book,” he said. “One of the things I wanted to do with actually finishing the book was to stress the need for dialogue, to stress the need for understanding.”

He said,  “You don’t have to agree, but you have to listen. Just because we talk about race doesn’t mean we’re playing the racial card, right? What happened in Pensacola last summer with the Confederate flag is a continuation of what happened at Escambia High School in 1974, ’75, ’76.”

Butler added, “If we don’t learn from the past, we will repeat it.”