In the spring of 1964, the Civil Rights Act had stalled in the U.S. Senate, and the prospect of its passage was all but certain. Sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations were widespread across the segregated South, including in Florida. In St. Augustine, local protestors had been met with violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and local organizers reached out to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for assistance.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy in St. Augustine, Florida. Photo by: Florida Memory
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC leadership came to Florida at that juncture not only to support local efforts, but to keep the national spotlight on the grave injustices heaped upon the civil rights demonstrators and pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. After marching with local protestors and demonstrating at the centuries-old historic slave market, Dr. King was arrested on the steps of the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964. A day before, the filibuster in the Senate had finally been broken. Eight days later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, which banned public segregation and employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Dr. King’s legacy urges us to shine a light on discrimination and to actively dismantle disparate treatment of not only people of color, but other groups that have historically been left out of the American Dream. In the year before he was assassinated, Dr. King embraced the fight for economic justice and united poor peoples of all colors in the Poor People’s Campaign. “We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago,” he said in his last Sunday sermon before he was killed. “And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”
This Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Florida Policy Institute recommits itself to employing a racial equity lens in all its work; a frame in which we always dive deeper into the data to highlight disparities by race and ethnicity where they exist within all our research areas: health, education, criminal justice and economic opportunity. The Institute urges the disaggregation of data—by race, ethnicity, immigration status, country of origin, disability status, gender, LGBTQ+–whenever possible. The first step to dismantling a policy’s disparate impact is identifying how different groups are faring. For example, one of the Institute’s policy priorities this year is for the Legislature to require performance data of our state’s Medicaid managed care system disaggregated by race and disability status. Historically in Florida, people of color and people with disabilities have found it difficult to access quality care and have experienced disparate health outcomes as a result. Without disaggregated data, policymakers cannot know how the move to Medicaid managed care has impacted historically underserved communities in Florida.
Dr. King embraced the fight against poverty because he deeply understood that economic mobility and human dignity went hand-in-hand. However, fast forward to today, and Florida has one of the most inequitable tax systems in the nation, ranking 48th among all states. Families with household incomes below $18,700 pay the highest percentage of their incomes in state and local taxes (12.7 percent), while families with the highest incomes—exceeding $548,700– pay the lowest percentage (2.3 percent). At the same time, our state has disinvested in critical supports over the last decade—Florida ranks last in funding public services.
Along the lines of a Poor People’s Campaign that envisions the unification of peoples of all races and backgrounds to work towards economic justice, the Institute’s Roadmap to Shared Prosperity outlines what it will take to build a Florida where all residents have an opportunity to thrive. The Roadmap details four major goals to foster shared prosperity in the Sunshine State:
Dr. King’s fight against racist policies and for human dignity made its way through Florida at a critical time during the national debate on the Civil Rights Act. Today, his legacy and the legacy of those Floridians that demonstrated alongside him for civil rights exhort us all to continue their fight.