SEBRING – It was 50 years ago – another era, another atmosphere, another mindset.
In the early 1960s, Thomas Brown was in his early- to mid-30s working as a barber and dealing in rental properties in Avon Park. Campaigning for the 1960 presidential election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy was underway; Brown was intently interested in how American citizens and his neighbors would vote and if the eventual winner would move ahead or be status quo. He would read the newspaper and closely followed radio and TV news.
At the time, that’s all Brown could do in the election process; as a black man, yet a U.S. citizen, it would be four more years before he was allowed to step into a voting hall and pull the lever in a voting booth.
Now, a half-century later, Brown is the pastor of Avon Park’s Faith Pentecostal House of God and said he can see enormous improvement in the lives and participation of African-Americans and other minority groups in the democratic process, from national, to state, to county and down to local elections in Avon Park.
It is just two months shy of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and some longtime black residents of Highlands County like Brown, now 84, think Highlands County has come a long way, but are still somewhat wary about the future.
“At that time we were working just to get more blacks involved in politics,” said Brown, who was born and raised in Avon Park and served as the president of the Highlands County NAACP in the early 1950s. “During that time, it was rough. It was difficult for us to even go downtown, Things are better now; people are assimilating more so now and living together.”
That trend will continue, as blacks account for 10.2 percent of Highlands County’s 2013 estimated population of about 97,600 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. They account for about 28 percent of the city’s approximately 9,000 residents in Avon Park.
In 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., reported there were 21,338 people in Highlands County. Of those, 16,820 were white and 4,518 were “non-white.”
According to an enumerator at the bureau, Avon Park’s population was 4,488 white, 1,584 black and one “other”; Sebring was 5,589 white, 1,346 black and four “other”; and Lake Placid was 958 white, nine black and 40 “other.”
When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964, Robert Saffold of Sebring was a 15-year-old student at Sebring’s segregated E.O. Douglas High School for black students. He said when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, it was the first time he really considered the power of a president.
At that time, Saffold, who works in land preparation on a Lake Placid sod farm, said there was no way anyone could foresee the day when a biracial president would one day lead the U.S., let alone even have a black city councilperson in government.
Overall, Saffold, 66, said he feels a “total change” in and around Sebring and Highlands County for not just African-Americans, but for minorities overall.
“We used to have to go to the back of the restaurants and if we went to the post office, we didn’t get boxes,” he said, as he recently had breakfast in a Lake Placid restaurant. “Things have changed; we have work to get done, it’s never done, but it’s way better now.”
Just 52 years before the signing of the Act, according to “One-Hundred Years of Sebring” by Sebring Historical Society office and museum historian Carole Goad, Tandy Brunough, Sebring founder George Sebring’s driver, handyman and friend, was waiting in Wauchula for Sebring to pick him up from a trip. The town marshal reportedly told Brunough, “This is a white man’s town” and was going to arrest him for loitering. After explaining he was waiting for Sebring, the marshal let him stay and wait.
Now, law enforcement and government officials know the importance of establishing good race relations for their own benefit and that of their communities.
In April, President Barack Obama and past presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush took part in a summit marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1964 civil rights law that Lyndon Johnson, by approving, risked his political career. At the time, Johnson needed to bring together a coalition of moderate Republicans and northern Democrats. At the same time, he encountered limits to that persuasion, just as city leaders did in Avon Park.
Aljoe Hinson, who was 18 in 1964, said the vibe of the city at the time of the signing of the Civil Rights Act was especially important in Highlands County, where he feels discrimination “is still here” and both political parties held certain animosities.
Hinson, an Avon Park native who taught school for 32 years in Dade County, said despite the struggle at the time, people in Highlands County have now become complacent with civil rights and too many people aren’t taking advantage of the right to vote.
“It should have ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public,” he said. “In Highlands County we must look at a lot of our government entities and make sure there is no discrimination in employment practices. We also must understand that our rights to vote have been attacked and I find that we take that right for granted and are not taking advantage of that right.”
Today, the racial politics of Highlands County has greatly improved overall, but Janice Allen - formerly Janice Green - said if there was any sort of racial tension in Lake Placid 50 years ago, it was “mild.”
Allen, 62, a Lake Placid native, was in middle school during the signing of the Civil Rights Act. In 1969, after graduation from Lake Placid High School, she moved to Ft. Washington, Md., but still has a sister and other family members in Lake Placid.
Allen said the racial turbulence in Lake Placid wasn’t like what was shown on TV news at the time, In 1965, some students would shout derogatory names to her and the four other blacks first to integrate the high school as freshmen, then run away. She said the most “prominent” students were chosen from Highway Park – the historically African-American part of the town – to integrate.
“When we were in school, we were very separate; there wasn’t much interaction (with white students). We pretty much went to school, studied and came home to our own communities,” she said. “The next year, they brought in the rest of the (black) kids.”
Allen admitted there have been significant changes in the town, state and nation since, but in the wake of the recent problems with racially-charged comments by Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, she still sees changes in perception still need to be made.
Despite the progress locally and nationally in equality, according to an April 2 report by CNN, it is doubtful the Civil Rights Act would pass today. The report stated that even though Johnson urged the nation to “close the springs of racial poison,” American politics today seem tainted.
The report mentioned while the political climate of 1964 could encourage the relationship between Johnson and Georgia Gov. Richard Russell Jr. – who strongly opposed civil rights - today’s politics “are too ugly to foster such relationships.”
At the Sebring Historical Society office and museum, historian Carole Goad has meticulously kept records and newspaper clippings regarding similar odds in Sebring during the Civil Rights era. Among the society’s archives is an article from Jan. 2, 1969, noting the integration of the ministerial association and a Jan. 23, 1925, story publicizing a Ku Klux Klan parade which ended with a cross-burning on the city circle.
“Sebring integrated (schools) in 1969, 1970 because the federal government threatened to withdraw funding. So just since then, we’ve come a long way – we have a ways to go, but it’s much, much better,” she said.
That’s the feeling of Lake Placid Mayor John Holbrook, whose town borders the historically black Highway Park neighborhood. Now in his third term as mayor, he said he would eventually like to annex Highway Park, but in the meantime, the town is doing what it can to help, such as taking over operations of the water plant in Highway Park, which is under the jurisdiction of Highlands County.
“I can’t see much of a difference here. I think the two communities have gotten together rather well. There’s always going to be conflicts, but when something has come up, we’ve been able to work through it.”
The politics of race have played a part throughout Highlands County but not to the extent of other parts of the South, was the impression by Arnold Davis, a board member of the Avon Park Community Redevelopment Agency Southside District.
Davis, 60, was born in Sebring but raised in Avon Park. He was 11 when the Civil Rights Act was signed and old enough to remember sitting in the “colored” section of the Avon Park movie theater, now a church on Main Street. Like Allen, he said overall, he didn’t remember a lot of confrontational incidences during the time of the bill’s signing, but there were older residents whose heads “had a little racial switch.”
“When we integrated, we got along well. I saw very few problems and we’ve come quite a ways since we integrated. I think,” he said.
The expansion of how the Civil Rights Act has affected Avon Park, to Highlands County and beyond continues. Not only does it forbid discrimination based on race, religion, sex, citizenship, age and disability, but in the 21st century, it has gone on to include pregnancy and even the discrimination based on genetic tests used to determine whether someone has an future increased risk of getting a disease, disorder or condition.
That’s the way it should be and the hope for an even better social future for Highlands County and all of the United States is what Brown is holding close.
“I lived through, those times,” he said. “The kids today have no idea what it’s like to always have to through the back door. Now, we all go through the front.”