Once, at a service station in Sanford, after we had missed the Auto Train because of an accident on the road which had backed up traffic, my traveling companion and I made a decision to take Highway 95 north to New York. A 30-ish black man walking down the sidewalk approached us in a friendly manner: “Where you from? You have a nice car!” When we told him we were from Miami, he said, “Don’t stay here. It is not safe here for black people. There is nothing good here for a black man.” Prophetic words, indeed, given recent events.
My first connection with Sanford was getting off the Auto Train when I first arrived to take up a position at Florida International University. I had learned that it was an easy way to bring my car down, boarding just outside Washington, D.C. Looking back, our friendly black Sanford resident now seems almost an oracle.
Sanford is a small Florida city with a great deal of history, some of which is of Southern racism which the film 42, on Jackie Robinson, revealed as domestic terrorism that forced him to quickly leave town to prevent what seemed an impending lynching.
Mims, Florida, where the first branch director of the NAACP, Harry Moore, and his wife Harriette, were firebombed and killed in 1951, is near Sanford and, indeed, he died on his way to a hospital there.
A young boy from Miami Gardens, Trayvon Martin, killed in Sanford in February 2012 and then criminalized in his death in 2013 by an unfair trial, entered history and unwittingly became the symbol that another generation will use as a marker of when they learned that racism in the U.S. is still virulent.
Like Mississippi or Alabama, Florida is also Deep South in similar ways as it relates to racial structures and history. The destruction of Rosewood happened in central Florida in 1923, just after the Ocoee Riots in 1920, documented by Zora Neale Hurston. St. Augustine and the Maroon communities created by the Black Seminoles of Florida were refuges from Southern racism.
No, Florida is definitely not the worst state, as John Oliver dubbed it, nor is it all South Beach, Disney, Daytona, Palm Beach and Spring Break. It is, instead, the final point in the U.S. where a range of extreme U.S. practices operate without close scrutiny until something major happens.
For those passing through Sanford, Central Florida is an internal landing point, surrounded by marshes, for coming and going to and from various points of Florida. One day, a quick side glance down a road as I drove down Highway 46, which takes one from Interstate 95 to the Auto Train, reminded me of the kind of dirt road captured in documentaries in which the civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed in 1964.
And Florida still has the highest rates of disenfranchisement of voters, including those who have already served time, if incarcerated.
While many in other parts of the world think of Miami when they think of Florida, Miami is a “global city,” urbanized and filled with ethnic diversity. But a drive just 20 miles outside to a place called Davie reveals farmland rapidly being gentrified where a white culture still surprises with named “red neck bars,” in which one can learn country and western dancing.
Trailer parks filled with poor white residents dot the landscape. And in the airport bar in Tallahassee, asking for a Corona is greeted with cold stares.
Having traveled to various parts of Florida when I was on the Commissioner of Education’s Task Force for the Teaching of the African American Experience, I was able to see some of Florida’s cities from the inside. We had a meeting once in Sanford and, after we concluded our business in the city center, we walked through the town to see some of the black history markers, and interacted with friendly black community residents, teachers and community workers trying to make a difference.
Besides the Florida Humanities Council research booklet on the “Florida Crackers” I mentioned before, a Google search reveals at least three entries – one in Wikipedia – which describe the history of the Florida crackers, named exactly that. They were frontiersmen who cracked the whips as they herded animals.
How it became a racialized Southern term assigned to poor whites, who cracked the whips as overseers over enslaved blacks as over animals, is another story.
The denial of human rights for black subjects throughout history is still a fundamental way in which racism is practiced. So it is not surprising that the “stand your ground” law was first enacted here and that there are classes to teach gun owners such as George Zimmerman their rights under that law. The entire judicial system, we learn, is stacked against black people.
Thus two tendencies operate in Florida: An urbanizing and ethnically diverse community, on the one hand, in the Southern tip of the state; and a white community in North and central Florida, fighting hard to retain political power and preserve white residential enclaves.
The African-American community is caught between these two demographic movements, displaced by Latin American culture in Miami, still marginalized and profiled by a Southern white community and its legal system.
The similar case of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old also shot within the same logic, in Jacksonville, needs to be paid close attention to, as is the inequity in the case of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in a domestic abuse incident, her self-defense plea rejected.
Trayvon Martin entered history as he fought for his life on that night in Sanford. Still, in his death, he is more alive than before, even though his sacrifice has returned us to a painful other history in which the fight for justice remains incomplete.
Carole Boyce Davies is professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University and past director of African Diaspora Studies at Florida International University.