We welcome to the blog a guest post from J. Michael Butler, author of Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980. In 1975, Florida’s Escambia County and the city of Pensacola experienced a pernicious chain of events. A sheriff’s deputy killed a young black man at point-blank range. Months of protests against police brutality followed, culminating in the arrest and conviction of the Reverend H. K. Matthews, the leading civil rights organizer in the county.
Viewing the events of Escambia County within the context of the broader civil rights movement, J. Michael Butler demonstrates that while activism of the previous decade destroyed most visible and dramatic signs of racial segregation, institutionalized forms of cultural racism still persisted.
In today’s post, Butler relates how one Florida community’s experience indicates that recent murders of black people by law enforcement officers embody a much larger–and longer–national fight for racial justice.
Why Pensacola? The question inevitably surfaces every time I discuss my latest publication with those who express interest. The answer can be long and meandering, as historians often are, but the most important reason is because Pensacola’s story is not its own. The story of racial power, privilege, change, and continuity in the years beyond integration is one that is familiar across America. Look no further that the recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
The Sterling and Castile shootings have revived the national debate over the role race occupies when white police officers use deadly force against African American men. Yet often lost in the response to the subsequent anger and protests is the historical context that surrounds the justifiable black mistrust of law enforcement policies and practices. From Groveland, Florida, to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to Detroit, Michigan–and numerous places in between both geographically and chronologically–white law enforcement officers at the local and state levels have murdered black men with impunity and often escaped punishment for their actions.
The perception that police departments were the most formidable bastions of white supremacy became an entrenched reality for African Americans during the 1960s civil rights movement and continued thereafter. My research into the Pensacola, Florida, black freedom struggle demonstrates that the Sterling and Castile deaths embody a much larger–and longer–national fight for racial justice than many realize.
The mistrust of local police has a long history in Escambia County, but it became linked to the area freedom struggle during the 1961 Pensacola sit-ins when officers placed items in the pockets of young demonstrators and arrested them for shoplifting. Ten years later, the county sheriff’s department settled a discrimination lawsuit with an African American male that revealed, among other things, the agency refused black prisoners access to medicine, food, showers, clothing, and attorney visits, and maintained six open-roof confinement cells that segregated prisoners by race.
In 1969 the Pensacola NAACP’s Youth Council listed “police brutality” as one of their two primary concerns for the coming decade, and numerous incidents supported their claim into the 1970s. When five black men from Atlanta disappeared during a 1974 fishing expedition under mysterious circumstances, suspicions that the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department hid their racially motivated murders attracted national attention. The national SCLC discovered only circumstantial evidence that a crime occurred, but cited the acrimonious history between local blacks and the department as proof of its complicity in “one of the biggest mass murders this state has ever seen.” The explosive allegation heightened the acrimony that existed between African Americans and law enforcement in Northwest Florida for decades and established the volatile foundations for communal unrest when a white deputy killed a black motorist the following month.
On December 20, 1974, Deputy Doug Raines shot Wendel Blackwell in the head from a three-foot distance when he exited his vehicle after a high-speed chase through Pensacola. Witness statements from present deputies and their white passengers did not all support that Blackwell was killed in self-defense, but the county sheriff took no disciplinary action against Raines and remained unwavering in his support of the deputy.
For African Americans, Blackwell’s death symbolized much more than an isolated fatality. It represented the pinnacle of local black apprehensions concerning law enforcement practices and brought African Americans into direct conflict with the white power structure.
Protests soon reached a fevered pitch in Pensacola and peaceful marches resulted in mass arrests, the unprecedented conviction of two local civil rights leaders on federal extortion charges, and the brief resurrection of a United Klans of American chapter. Perhaps most importantly, the episode intensified black fear and contempt of their own sheriff’s deputies and heightened departmental defensiveness when their officers abused, injured, or even killed those they pledged to protect. The mutual suspicion persisted into the twenty-first century, still permeates the region, and remains the area’s most volatile civil rights issue.
Why, then, Pensacola? Because the lessons and legacy of its freedom struggle, particularly the ongoing tensions between minority citizens and law enforcement officials, transcend local, state, or even regional context. The deaths of black people at the hands of white police under questionable circumstances–whether it is Wendel Blackwell in Pensacola, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, or Phil Castile in Minneapolis–are part of a much longer history that reveals the accomplishments, shortcomings, and state of the contemporary black freedom struggle. Communities can learn valuable lessons from the Pensacola experience or risk making similar mistakes that still plague race relations in Northwest Florida.
J. Michael Butler is associate professor of history at Flagler College and author of Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980. Follow him on Twitter @dr_mbutler to learn more about his work. Read his previous guest post on our blog, “Confederate Symbolism and School Integration.”