On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 15, 1960, six students from Florida Normal and Industrial Memorial College (now Florida Memorial University and currently located in Miami Gardens) — Viola Edwards, Claxton Pittman, Robert Lovett, Josephine Williams, Christine Calhoun, and Alfred Lee—attempted to integrate the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown St. Augustine. They were detained and released without charges. The students came back for a second and a third day. On the last day, one of the members of the group was severely beaten.
These students were inspired, of course, by the sit-ins led by students from North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro the month before. All this activity kicked off a new phase of the Civil Rights Movement, one in which youth took the lead and which focused on non-violent protests that disrupted the normal operations of businesses while drawing attention to racial exclusion.
If not for these actions and activities— sit-ins, wade-ins, swim-ins, and Freedom Rides—Jim Crow and inequality would still be the law of the land. The success of these protests and the Civil Rights Movement writ large created for people in my generation a society with opportunities that my ancestors did not have and might not have been able to imagine.
But what if these activities had been criminalized, and if these students would have been charged with felonies for their protest activities? What if their opponents would have been empowered to “stand their ground” or use their vehicles to mow down protesters on the Edmund Pettis bridge?
The anti-protest legislation proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis is not only unnecessary and unconstitutional but reflect the worst impulses of racist administrations that date back to the 1950s and 1960s. It is reflective of the antiquated mindsets that many historians of the Black experience in America heard every time we saw and heard “Make America Great Again.” Even worst, despite the constant criticisms of the Democratic left as being influenced by communistic thinking, Gov. DeSantis’s law flies in the face of First Amendment protections that are at the core of our civil rights. Instead of addressing the root issue of last year’s protest—racial inequality and police brutality—Gov. DeSantis has instead decided to crack down on free speech and to interfere with local control of budgeting processes, in order to protect law enforcement.
This is but one piece of legislation being considered in Florida, or implemented in Georgia, that lets us know that continued vigilance for the protection of civil and voting rights is necessary in the face of continued and now escalating attacks by Republican administrations and legislatures in the region. We must continue to raise our voices and hold our elected ofﬁcials accountable for the oppressive proposals they are enacting. The danger that was born out of the last presidential administration has not ended. Instead, it seems that Republicans have taken courage in Donald Trump’s example and are determined to constrict and contract civil rights and racial inclusivity at all costs.
Fortunately for us all, we can look to history for inspiration and examples of the long-term discipline and engagement that it takes to create and maintain inclusion and opportunity in our society. We must each challenge ourselves to do whatever is in our power to continue to protect and defend our rights.