Sometimes something seems so obvious after the fact that we wonder why it had not happened earlier.
That is how it is with the formal apology Florida’s Governor and Cabinet offered to African Americans who were brutalized and arrested just for exercising their constitutional rights in St. Augustine decades ago and marching for justice. The Governor and Cabinet also formally asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to have the arrest records of these courageous people expunged.
It was not an act designed to bring more jobs to the state or have any other economic impact at a time when most people believe that is all there is to be discussed and debated today.
But for these Americans who stood up for their rights and for all African Americans and other people of good conscience, it was a gesture long overdue.
A Deep South state, Florida was among the top states that treated their African-American residents as less than full citizens, using some of the harshest methods to keep a people under the yoke of oppression. It was bad enough that racist whites individually and in groups tried their best to maintain the policy of white supremacy. It was, of course, much worse that governmental agencies, such as the police force, gave formal sanction to such behavior against the “Freedom Fighters” and were active participants in the promotion of racial superiority.
The apology resolution requires that the arrest records of these heroes be put in the state archives so they can “forever serve as a living and viable testament to the courage, ideals and bravery during those fateful months.”
Dr. Robert Hayling, a retired dentist now living in Fort Lauderdale, and a leader of the movement to segregate beaches and lunch counters in St. Augustine, and others from that era were rightly moved by the resolution, saying, “This is a moment in life we will never forget.”
The pity, of course is that it has taken so long for this injustice to be set right. Even worse, the Governor and Cabinet acted after the Legislature refused to pass a bill from state Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat, and state Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, seeking to have the arrests expunged. It was Sen. Hill who petitioned the Governor and Cabinet, meeting as the Board of Executive Clemency to take action.
The Legislature’s refusal to act signaled that many Floridians – whom the lawmakers represent — still are not willing to acknowledge the wrongs done to African Americans in this state. For now, though, one small step has been taken along the road to redemption.