I vividly recall the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Fresh out of Florida A&M, I was stationed in Chu Lai, Vietnam, with the U.S. Army’s Americal Division. Our commanding officer brought the African-American soldiers together to share the news of King’s assassination.
As millions mourned King, I struggled. Why did we risk our lives fighting for others’ freedoms as our heroes got cut down back in America? In my own native South, regardless of the Civil Rights laws, the de facto rules of that day limited a black man’s ability to earn a living wage and where he could reside. It was, to say the least, a very troubling time.
Yet, between the formation of the Jacksonville Urban League in 1947 and the murder of King, the United States slowly, incrementally, began to realize the equality found in the tenets of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Of course, those once-hallowed walls of segregation did not, of their own volition, come falling down. In Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Tallahassee and other cities, marches, protests and primarily NAACP-directed courtroom victories brought them down.
Local heroes, including Rutledge Pearson, Earl Johnson, Willye Dennis, Frank Hampton, Sallye Mathis, Rodney Hurst, Alton Yates, Bob Ingram, the Jacksonville Urban League’s Clanzel T. Brown, a long line of black ministers and many others, including the Anti-Defamation League, and a few whites, such as Stetson Kennedy, moved effectively against Jim Crow.
Over the decades, with the aid of allies from across the ethnic, racial and religious spectrum, we Jacksonvillians have achieved still more progress.
The election of Jacksonville’s first African-American mayor, as well as the rapid ascent of the new Jaguars owner, have revitalized our self-image and gained a national re-evaluation of our city’s social and economic potential.
Long before the arrival of these important leaders, Jacksonville may have been Florida’s most diverse city, where many African-Americans achieved major financial success. In the early 1920s, before Jim Crow finally slammed its door on black wealth creation, several African-American banks and insurance companies flourished.
Civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph and author, lawyer, diplomat and National NAACP Executive Director James Weldon Johnson, as well as Florida’s first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, are just a few of the many noteworthy African-Americans who have played significant roles in our city’s socioeconomic evolution.
While African-Americans are still the largest minority group, a rich ethnic and racial diversity from more than 120 nations has taken root on the banks of the St. Johns. And by 2040, the University of Florida Bureau of Economic & Business Research predicts that African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans will outnumber whites.
Before Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders — aided by Negro troops whose heroism he praised — took San Juan Hill, Cuban freedom fighters shipped weapons from Northeast Florida to Cuba in an effort to toss off the yoke of imperial Spain.
From the 19th century forward, talented immigrants from Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa came to a place formally called Cowford. The Chinese arrived, to take up farming on the Westside in the 1880s, and for almost a century, they shipped vegetables to restaurants from Miami to New York, while Filipinos succeeded in a variety of professions.
Middle Easterners opened businesses and several notable Middle Easterners became public officials, while Jewish entrepreneurs built immense downtown department stores, including the May Cohen’s building that today houses City Hall. And for those with a sweet tooth, who can forget Worman’s Delicatessen?
Yes, there’s been significant progress on lands where crosses once burned, but 45 years after King’s death, our segregated past still shadows First Coast economic development decisions.
As president of the Jacksonville Urban League, I’ve had the privilege of working with many dedicated and talented colleagues from the corporate, political and education sectors, who promote diversity and inclusion in their professional and personal lives.
Unfortunately, this sincere striving for openness is not found in some key institutions. African-Americans, other minorities and women can still be labeled as unrealistic and their careers put on the slow track if they fail to actively mirror the views of senior white male colleagues.
Such environments are hardly incubators for new dynamic ideas.
Limiting employment because of anyone’s sexual orientation is another form of bigotry. It limits Jacksonville’s retention of some very bright minds and undermines our ability to recruit major, tolerant job-creating corporations. We certainly can do better.
Failing to make the most of existing human resources can and probably will have other unintended consequences. Still more talented young people — including our own children — will exit Northeast Florida and put down roots in more inclusive regions, where leaders actively tap into the powers of diverse talent pools.
What about the role of education?
Will Jacksonville’s increasingly resegregated schools, outside the walls of well-financed charters and magnets, be pipelines to an environment where minority-majority children lack the interaction skills needed to function well in an increasingly diverse world?
Our public education system will either be a major stumbling block or a stairway to a brighter tomorrow, as our increasingly diverse metropolis competes for people and resources in the 21st century’s expanding global economic development wars.
In China, Japan and much of Europe, public school educated children routinely surpass both publicly and privately schooled U.S. counterparts in math and science.
While Duval County schools have reduced students’ exposure to the humanities, Europe continues to value the universal importance of arts, history and literature; China has begun to outdistance the United States in early childhood education.
Will Jacksonville’s public schools remain simply adequate, as parents shift more children into St. Johns County or costly private schools? Taxpayers certainly deserve better.
My Urban League colleagues and I are actively supporting Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, as he strives to succeed where predecessors failed. And as we support his efforts to revitalize the Duval County K-12 model, we at the Urban League continue to upgrade our own educational services.
I believe that this city, our town, can rise to the point where a person’s religion, race, gender or sexual orientation are, finally, just simply private, personal matters, instead of barriers that keep us apart and derail our aspirations.
JCCI’s JAX2025 work offers us the opportunity to identify priorities and construct a vision of what social, cultural and economic goals we on the First Coast aim to achieve over the next 12 years.
Previous “community-wide” vision quests brought upgrades to some aspects of the Jacksonville experience. Yet they failed to achieve significant minority group input. Subsequently, the economic, social and cultural concerns of these communities have not been adequately addressed.
The rhetoric, press releases and reports were interesting, and significant outcomes, desired by the majority, were partly achieved. But most changes barely affected the fastest growing segments of Jacksonville’s tax-paying citizens.
In my view, we will only reach major citywide economic milestones when a significantly larger portion of the current majority population appreciates the positive value of genuine community-wide participation — and the unavoidable and painful long-term costs of failing to achieve this goal.
As Martin Luther King Jr. sat behind the bars in a Birmingham jail, he wrote, “There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths and downright ignorance.”
Let us let go of our view of “the other” and toss off the bold-lettered half-truths of the past, as we build a more vital city on the river that reflects and champions we really are.
Danford has served as CEO of Jacksonville Urban League since 1992, with prior service with the city of Jacksonville, Edward Waters College, the University of Florida and Thomas Area Technical School.