MAXWELL:  Jim Crow is given a new outfit

2/2/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

In 1949, Virgil Hawkins, an African-American professor at historically black Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, applied for admission to the University of Florida College of Law. Hawkins’ application was summarily rejected. And in in quick order, the state Board of Regents, the state attorney general and the Florida Supreme Court agreed that Hawkins could not attend UF’s law school.

In the court’s last word on the matter _ flouting a U.S. Supreme Court decision _ Florida Supreme Court Justice Glenn Terrell, an unreconstructed racist, declared that racial segregation was God’s wish for humankind: “When God created man, he created each race to his own continent according to color _ Europe to the white man, Africa to the black man, and America to the red man.”

For many African-Americans, as the hypocritical debate over affirmative action rages today, Terrell’s words still resonate. We hear his warped attitude reflected in much of the right-wing talk about the evil of affirmative action for black citizens, a group that has been systematically and institutionally denied admission into many mainstream arenas while many unqualified whites enjoy admission.

Hawkins and other aspiring black lawyers had nowhere to go if they wanted to learn their profession in their home state of Florida. Jim Crow ruled the day and was supported by segregationist readings of the Old Testament and racist interpretations of the Florida and U.S. constitutions. Later, without benefiting Hawkins and his generation, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed discrimination based solely on skin color.

Suddenly, officials at UF would have to admit blacks into its flagship, lily-white law school. UF and its supporters in Tallahassee were not ready to commit such an act of justice. What happened next, as described in the 2002 summer issue of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, gave Florida officials a way to maintain de facto segregation at UF:

“Under the separate but equal principle of Plessy vs. Ferguson, if the University of Florida was not willing to admit black students to its law school, the state would have to provide “equal’ facilities for blacks. So in 1951 a small law school was created on the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. It had a tiny 6,000-book library. Over the next 17 years, the law school graduated only 57 students, an average of less than four per year.”

But change marched into the Sunshine State. With Hawkins stepping aside, the state agreed to let other blacks into UF, and shrewd lawmakers immediately cut off funding to FAMU’s law school. The 6,000-book collection was boxed up and carted off to the law library at Florida State University over the next hill.

During subsequent years, blacks attended UF’s law school, but their relationship with the college has been rocky at best, and reports of discrimination never go away.

Now, with Republicans and their supporters demonizing affirmative action, Florida has fashioned a new, more benign, form of Jim Crow. And the precepts underpinning Plessy vs. Ferguson have given legislators a way to play all sides of the issue.

Two years ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush issued an executive order banning race as a consideration in admission to the state’s universities. He implemented the so-called One Florida plan, which was supposed to replace affirmative action. It admitted to the state university system the top 20 percent of the graduating class at each public high school. These otherwise qualified students, however, would have to compete for slots at the flagship UF campus. And, of course, race could not be a consideration.

With the then-2002 gubernatorial election fast approaching, with black anger fomenting over One Florida and with black and Hispanic demands for new law schools growing louder, Bush reached into the past and gave them what they wanted. He and the GOP-controlled Legislature established law schools for mostly black FAMU and predominantly Hispanic Florida International University in Miami.

Consider this contradictory language in the legislation authorizing FAMU’s law school: “The college of law at Florida A&M University shall be dedicated to providing opportunities for minorities to attain representation with the legal profession proportionate to their representation in the general population. However, the college of law shall not include preferences in the admissions process for applicants on the basis of race, national origin, or sex.”

Fancy language aside, everyone knows that the FAMU law school _ a second-tier institution _ will become a virtual ghetto, while UF’s law school will become whiter.

Here is The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education’s assessment of what FAMU’s law school means: “Segregationists . . . were delighted with the prospect of a new law school earmarked for blacks. The legislators necessarily knew that very few white students would want to attend a law school at a historically black university. Like it or not, in the minds of most whites a continuing stigma attaches to black educational institutions. Therefore, it was almost certain that blacks would take up most of the spaces at the new school.”

Like many other Florida-based black journalists, I got to know Virgil Hawkins well. My sense is that even if FAMU’s law school were created with the best of intentions, Hawkins would see it as a gussied-up version of Jim Crow.

The unflattering truth is that FAMU’s law school would have been Hawkins’ second or third choice. Remember, he applied to the University of Florida, not to one of the nation’s black colleges of law. He wanted to attend the state’s best.