The 11th judicial circuit of the state of Florida will celebrate its 100th anniversary in May. Currently, the circuit includes only Miami-Dade County. When the Legislature established it in 1911, however, the circuit included all of southeastern Florida — from Palm Beach County to Monroe County.
The celebration of this centennial will include four symposia focusing on different aspects of the court’s history: Civil Rights, Diversity in the Judiciary, Media and the Courts, and Evolution of the Modern Jury Trial.
As a native of Miami and one of the co-chairs for the Civil Rights Symposium, I recognized that the 21st century’s “Gateway of the Americas” was as much culturally “the South” as it is geographically South in the early 20th century.
Oppressive Jim Crow laws divided black from white and, thus, blacks and whites had a markedly different life experience within a limited geography. While black history has been brought to the mainstream in some ways, most people have few, if any, opportunities to consider the real-life experiences of the individuals who faced the glass prisms that limited their professional and social opportunities.
This civil rights history is intrinsically linked to the court’s history and, thus, the opportunity for this retrospective is poignant.
In the early 20th century, South Florida was in many ways defined by the city of Miami, which was founded in 1896. On a national scale, the year 1896 is most noted for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision which established the premise of “separate but equal.” Miami developed as a geographically and culturally Southern city with segregated education, public facilities, and neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, segregation never realized the “separate but equal” standard as black schools received white schools’ used books; blacks were often unable to obtain service at restaurants or stay in hotels that served only whites; and deed restrictions limited the neighborhoods where blacks could reside. In fact, the effectiveness of integration in Miami-Dade County’s public schools and neighborhoods continues to be questioned today.
When the Dade County Courthouse opened, the law of “separate but equal” precluded blacks from using the same entrance, water fountains and restrooms as whites inside this public building. Similarly, the law prevented black students from attending the same schools as white students.
While this truth is often highlighted in the reels of civil rights protests and sit-ins, the challenges of black professionals likely escape the awareness of the masses.
Florida’s first black attorneys were de facto civil rights attorneys in that they faced challenges from their very admission to the Florida Bar. While most white attorneys enjoyed the benefit of a “diploma privilege” that exempted them from the bar exam as graduates of Florida law schools, out-of-state law graduates were made to sit for bar exams and to do so in separate facilities from their white counterparts. Once admitted to the Florida Bar, the early black attorneys were prosecuting claims to ensure access to education, housing and public facilities.
The experience of Miami-Dade County’s first black attorneys, such as Richard E. S. Toomey and Lawson E. Thomas, was further evidence of that segregation. These learned men were precluded from addressing a judge directly in court simply because they were black. Thomas, who later became the first black judge for the Negro Municipal Court, was the attorney who broke this barrier.
While many of the most oppressive laws have been changed through negotiation, litigation and legislation, civil rights issues persist as the changing demographic tends to affect the power of a voting bloc, economic opportunity and social perception.
Further, the civil rights cause which began historically with blacks has expanded to address the limitations that have been imposed upon women, Cubans, Haitians, and homosexuals. Thus, civil rights in the courts remains as relevant and critical a concern for Miami-Dade County in the court’s 100th year as it did in the “Civil Rights Era.”
The Civil Rights symposium will create an audience for the women and men who lived the history and help the audience to see that history through their eyes. Rather than address this rich subject through an academic presentation, the symposium will provide insight and direct experience of some of the trailblazers and those who continue to carry the torch for civil rights justice in the 11th judicial circuit.
The legacy of these lawyers provides the foundation upon which all subsequent accomplishments have been achieved. In the early 21st century, black attorneys are able to enjoy the privilege of standing on the shoulders of these legal giants.
• The Civil Rights Symposium will be held at Miami’s Black Police Precinct and Courthouse, 480 NW 11th St., from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011. For more information, call 305-793-0701 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marva L. Wiley, Esq. is a third-generation native Miamian and an attorney practicing probate, real estate and consumer law in South Florida She is a member of the 11th Judicial Circuit’s Centennial Committee and one of three co-chairs of the Civil Rights Symposium.