Blacks Confronting Minority Problems in the Sunshine State

Blacks Confronting Minority Problems in the Sunshine State

By Al Burt

Vol. 2, No. 4, 1980, pp. 20-22

For the first time in Florida, a broadly based coalition of Black organizations has adopted an agenda for political action. Its priorities reveal the nature of minority problems in Florida. It seeks changes in matters ranging from local police action to U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees.

Known as the Florida Black Agenda Coalition, it has called for a task force to study the possibilities of a state operated lottery, whose funds would be earmarked for education, economic development and aid to the elderly; a change in the controversial Fleeing Felon Law, which permits law enforcement officers to shoot suspects fleeing the scene of a felony; property taxes scaled to income;, single-member legislative districts to increase minority representation; and the end of social promotions in the schools.

The coalition further asks for universal voter registration by postcard to make political participation easier. They are also seeking a state-financed study of sickle cell anemia and the disproportionately high incidence of cancer among Blacks; prison administrations that reflect the prison populations; resources for the poor accused of capital crimes that match those of the prosecution; and political asylum for 8,000 Haitian refugees in Florida.

“We are trying to identify the issues and the programs that have high impact for minority communities,” said Marvin Davies, minority affairs assistant to Gov. Bob Graham. Davies is chairman of the political action forum of the coalition, whose members are either elected officials or heads of Black organizations.

The issues go across the board, to all levels from federal to local. “There were somebig ones in terms of priorities,” Davies said, “We think the requiring of single member districts, for example, would result in the election of five more Blacks to the state House and three to the Senate.”

At present, the 120 members of the Florida House are apportioned in computer-drawn districts based onthe 1970 census. It has 21 single-member districts and the rest are the multimember districts with from two to six representatives each. There are four Blacks in the House. The 40-member Senate has five single-member districts, no Blacks.

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Beyond asking that the 8,000 Haitian refugees be recognized as political refugees, Davies says, “We are asking federal and state help for them while their status is being determined. In some cases, it may take two to three years for the legal process to determine if they will be admitted to this country. During the interim they should be given government help. We ought to be sensititve enough to know something’s wrong, something is causing them to come. Even if the reasons were economic, they deserve aid while that is being decided.”

The Fleeing Felon Law was a source of statewide controversy, but particularly in Pensacola and Tampa. Davies said, “Tampa corrected the problem with local policy, but we believe a change in the law is both preferable and still needed elsewhere.”

The lottery study follows an unsuccessful statewide referendum during former Gov. Reubin Askew’s last term in office (he opposed) to permit gambling casinos in Florida. The pro-casino forces similarly focused on the tax benefits for educational and other programs.

The agenda includes changes in six broad areas – affirmative action, criminal justice, education, business, politics, health-social, and taxes.

In affirmative action, the coalition asks for financial resources adequate for investigation and enforcement of equal opportunity laws; that management be held accountable for performance in reaching goals; that management proportionally reflect the work force; that unemployment be identified as the number one problem; that testing procedures be eliminated which systematically

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screen out Blacks; that there be an annual report outlining affirmative action performance at all levels of government; that each personnel office include minority recruiters; that the Florida Commission on Human Relations be more fully funded.

In education, the group wants a task force to study ways and means of helping Black students toward more positive attitudes and self-concepts; the monitoring of primary education to help under-achievers and the monitoring of education systems promotions to insure the upward mobility of Black educators; the elimination of social promotions for all students; the elimination of “tracking” (grouping by performance); better funding of programs at Florida AM University and a reaffirmation of its future; the Florida Student Assessment Test (literacy) to be used for diagnostic purposes only.

In reference to the economy, recommendations include a request that the governor commission an annual minority economic conference (the first, a joint federal-state affair, was held Dec. 78 in Orlando); full implementation of the Small Business Administration Act; hiring of Blacks in policy positions of state government, particularly in positions relating to tourism and development in the Department of Commerce (a Black, Don Griffin, has been hired as deputy director of the Department of Commerce); that the governor solicit and encourage private, state and federal help in recruiting minority developers; the development of bonding capability for Black contractors and developers; that Black firms be included in domestic and international trade shows and missions; that Black contractors be considered in the letting of all government contracts.

In addition to universal postcard voter registration, and the offering of registration on the day of the election, changes called for in the political area include a voting card be required for all high school graduates 18 or over; the governor’s support as promised in his election campaign for single-member legislative districts (and in state and local offices as well); an independent commission to draw the new districts rather than leaving it to the legislature; full representation in Congress for Washington, D.C.; making the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a legal holiday (a legislative resolution now permits that day off at the employee’s expense).

In the area of criminal. justice, changes in the Fleeing Felon Law, resources for the poor accused of capital rimes and prison administration led the proposals, but others include permitting the poor a choice of attorney when one must be provided by the state and for all communities, a citizens review board on police actions.

In health, the agenda seeks subsidized energy and utility bills for the poor; free transportation of the poor to human services; hiring of social services workers to reflect the population they serve; th’ previously mentioned studies of cancer and sickle cell anemia (a bill on sickle cell anemia was defeated in the legislature last year and a new one is pending in both houses which would provide $50,000 for a study of the problem); support for social programs aimed at teenaged pregnancy; greater state financial effort on the problems of malnutrition and hypertension in Blacks.

In the field related to taxes, the group asked for a state operated lottery; a proposal that the sales tax be frozen at four percent; that the homestead exemption on property taxes be increased from $5,000 to $25,000, thereby lowering tax bills in the lower price range; that property taxes be scaled progressively to income; that no citizen should lose his home for failure to pay back taxes until the tax assessor had tacked conspicuous notice of that prospect on the house in question. The latter resulted from a case in which a West Florida couple lost their home because they did not understand the liability involved in $3.50 back taxes.

The body has already adopted the agenda. The coalition’s plans now include a fundraising event whereby they can secure enough money to publish their agenda and make it available to every school and every home in the area. The coalition will be meeting with all candidates, both local and national, to make its agenda known and to let the candidates know what is expected of them in exchange for their votes.

Al Burt is a roving columnist for the Miami Herald.