Bending With the Wind: A Lesson in Survival

By Al Burt

Vol. 1, No. 4, 1979, pp. 14-16

In his 72 years. Virgil D. Hawkins has learned something about the ways to fight and to survive and sometimes to succeed. But he wonders whether he ever can explain these hard lessons to the young. Some want to listen, and some do not.

He was not the gunfighter who sought one dramatic showdown to decide whether he would live free or die. His has the patient courage, the kind easily misunderstood. He became free by inches, demanding year after year after year what was his, and finally winning.

At age 42, Hawkins applied for admission to the University of Florida Law School, and the application was denied because he was Black. That was 1949. For nine years he pursued a steady legal battle. Three times it went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1958, a federal district court ordered that he he admitted. Then, with victory in his hands, he passed it up and went to Boston University. Because of him, other Blacks were able to enter his home state's principal law school, but he went North.

The unusual story continues. He earned a Master of Arts degree at Boston University, and a law degree at the New England School of Law, but subtle racism drove him hack South. "I didn't like that," Hawkins said. "I never knew where I was. In the South you always know. It's just like walking on a carpet with a snake in it. I'd rather see the snake out here so I can hit him than to have him hiding in that carpet and I don't know when he's going to bite me."

Hawkins returned to Leesburg, Fla., his north central Florida home, and went to work. He never took the Florida Bar examination. He explained that he had to support his family and that he got involved in making a living and kept putting it off, and found it hard after all the years away to settle down to studying again.

In 1976, he petitioned to be allowed to practice law in Florida without taking the examination. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, stating that Hawkins had a "claim on this court's conscience." In February 1977, 28 years after his quest began, he was admitted to the Florida Bar. "It's durability that counts," he said.

Hawkins, a stocky, gray-haired man who wears goldrimmed glasses, now works in a secondstory office above a shoe store in Eustis, Fla., as director of consumer affairs for the Lake County Community Action Agency. He also practices privately in nearby Leesburg. Most of his work involves minor criminal and civil cases before the county court.

Not everyone understood the course he chose, nor do they all understand now, but to Hawkins it was the intelligent way. "I wanted to do it," he said, explaining his decision not to enter the University of Florida Law School after fighting to clear the way. "I knew they were settin' for me. ready for me. I would have been the whipping boy. I didn't want that." He took away their target, made it easier for the others. He tries especially hard to tell young people how it was, and does not always succeed.

A big moment for him came when the University of Florida Law School invited him to he a member of a discussion panel there. He got a lot of questions. "They liked


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me," he said happily. "The Black kids up there appreciate me. They were interested in the truth about segregation. They wanted me to explain how it was then, how we stood up against it. They respected me for what I did. They didn't understand it all, but they liked me and it made me feel good."

That was the exceptional experience, however. He worries because most of the young he encounters are not so receptive to the hard lessons he offers. He talks to them and tells them about the past and tries to explain, but they expect the answers to be more swift and more complete.

"The young ones," he said, shaking his head. "They think if you've got gray hair, you're a headbower; that you went along with everything. You weren't violent, they say. They think they know everything.

"My Daddy told me how the pines and the oaks were the first to get blown down in the hurricanes, but the palms had a chance because they bent with the winds.

"The young don't understand that. They have the idea of throwing bricks and retaliation and things of that type. They think that when you're born, you're born in a pasture of instant success. All you have to do is step outside and be an instant success.

"Don't have to do anything, don't have to try anything, don't have to suffer anything.

"They think they can get on a show and answer a few questions and win a million dollars. They think they can touch the right fellow and get a job. They don't care anything about being fit for the job. Being prepared for it don't make any difference. Just want the job.

"Black youth has too far to go. He is behind, way behind. He don't have time for pointing fingers and that stuff.

"When O.J. Simpson gets the football, he don't stop to find fault with the men trying to tackle him. He just outruns 'em.

"All the things they said and did to me in my day, if I paid attention to them, if I stopped to hate, I never would have done anything."

Not many men could speak so bluntly and expect to retain stature in their community. Hawkins can because he has been through the fire, even though it was the fire of another time and he did it his own way.

Hawkins' story remains an important one because it combines human and practical dimensions with bona fide credentials of suffering and eventual success. He was born south of Leesburg near Okahumpka, then a kaolin mining town, the son of a laborer who preached each Sunday in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He had seven brothers and sisters.

He attended the first six grades in an all-Black elementary school where one teacher in one room taught 60 children of all grades. "It was tough in those days. Most counties in Florida were tough then," he said. "Blacks didn't have much chance. It was generally conceded you didn't do certain things, like go to town at night. There were separate restrooms, separate waiting rooms, separate fountains. Everything was separate.

"A Black man was not thought of as an individual, unless he had a particular White friend. Then they might say, 'Old Virgil, he's all right. We'll do this for him.'

"A Black man had no rights, no rights whatsoever. He just bowed and took whatever the White man gave him. He could be satisfied or be shot."

After the sixth grade, he went to Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, where he cut and split and stacked furnace firewood to pay his way.

"A Black man paid as much to go to high school as the White man did to go to college. We had to go away somewhere." Only one of his brothers and sisters made it as far as Edward Waters College with him.

Briefly, he attended Lincoln University in Chester, Pa., and then came back to Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where he worked and went to school parttime until he got a bachelors degree. At that point, he returned to Leesburg and began the struggle to attend law school at the state university just 70 miles up the road in Gainesville.

Hawkins now declares himself to be a happy man, not a bitter one. He thinks bitterness is a distraction from the ,pb n="16"/ goal and a waste of effort. "We've got to put on the whole armor of citizenship," he said. He keeps looking for a way to make the young realize that in other times and other circumstances there was something heroic even in the heritage from Uncle Tom" and the "handkerchief heads."

"They were fighting but at the same time bowing and accommodating the situation so that when the sun started shining the Black man could stand up like a palm tree.

"They were taking all that for their ancestry," Hawkins said. "If they could take those lashes on the back, I could take the verbal lashes. Each of us has to do the best we can in our time."

Virgil Hawkins, a patient warrior, warns of snakes in the carpet almost in the same breath that he praises Uncle Tom and the "handkerchief heads." Some do not understand that, but it is his way.

Al Burt is a roving columnist for the Miami Herald.