by Tim Gilmore, 3/11/2021
For two years in the 1990s, the National Association for the Advancement of White People, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, romanced the City of Jacksonville. A Duval County School Board member appointed a white supremacist to a task force on school desegregation, a national white supremacist hotline connected to a Jacksonville elementary school and city officials apologized to the NAAWP when librarians countered the group’s vitriol toward black employees.
The first time the National Association for the Advancement of White People dragged Jacksonville into national news was when Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan fired Duval County campaign chair Susan Lamb, also president of the local chapter of the NAAWP. It was the second time in two days that the press exposed a Buchanan campaign aide’s ties to a white supremacist group.
Lamb said the NAAWP was “no different than” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization formed in 1909 to help former slaves and their children gain their full rights as citizens, their civil rights. On Friday, February 16, 1996, Buchanan responded, “If there’s a group supporting white supremacy in America, my country, I don’t want anything to do with this.” It was a time when national politicians could only be associated with racist organizations to their peril and few people could imagine the future might be any different. That kind of politics, people thought, at least on a national level, was doomed to the past.
The following spring, David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana Congressman who’d founded the NAAWP in 1979, was speaking at the Tampa Firemen’s Hall, operated by the Tampa Fire and Police Retirees Association. Six Tampa venues had refused to let Susan Lamb host an NAAWP conference, but the Firemen’s Hall was hosting David Duke’s National Alliance, one of the largest American neo-Nazi organizations. So Lamb reached out to Duke to bring him to Jacksonville where he was soon scheduled to speak at the old Duval County Armory downtown. The National Guard hadn’t let Marvin Strickland, president of the Jax chapter of an earlier racist group also called the National Association for the Advancement of White People, speak at the Armory in 1954 (at a time when such views were much less controversial) and it didn’t let David Duke in 1997.
In previous years, prominent Jacksonville religious leaders, including George Hodges of Beaver Street Baptist Church, Bob Gray of Trinity Baptist Church, A.C. Shuler of Calvary Baptist Church and W.A. Hobson of First Baptist Church, had ties with the Ku Klux Klan. So did political leaders like Jacksonville City Councilman and Florida Governor Fuller Warren. The Klan’s most egregious act of racist violence in Jacksonville was the 1963 bombing of the home of Donal Godfrey, a six year old boy who’d been the first black student at previously all white Lackawanna Elementary School. The bomb destroyed the house and blew the refrigerator through the roof, but Donal and his mother Iona, at the opposite end of the house at that moment, survived the blast. By the 1990s, three decades after the Voting Rights Act, politicians of anyplace more than utterly backwardly provincial, avoided overt connections to racist groups.
But the NAAWP kept dragging Jacksonville back into national headlines. Columnists like the incomparable Tonyaa Weathersbee took a look at the organization’s newsletters. They quoted references to how Jews “divide and conquer thru race war,” how the concept of “Negro inferiority” connected “common sense with science,” and how every “hyphenated American” should get two bullets to the back of the head, with victims’ families billed for the cost of the bullets.
Then the standoff between Jacksonville librarian Pat Doyle and NAAWP leader Reno Wolfe hit newswires. When Doyle stood up to the group, which used the Highlands Branch Library in North Jax for monthly meetings, city officials suspended Doyle and apologized to the NAAWP.
Doyle acknowledged that the group had a right to meet at the library, even if its views disgusted her. She called libraries “the cornerstone of democracy.” She clearly didn’t feel threatened by the political power of the group, whose numbers had dwindled to about 1,000 nationwide and whose leadership had shifted from Louisiana to Florida. She could not, however, allow NAAWP members to treat her staff, most of whom were black, with such blatant animosity and disrespect.
NAAWP members had demanded library workers remove posters commemorating black achievement and predicted “a coming race war.” They’d brought a rifle bag to their meetings and refused to let library employees see what was in it.
So Doyle and fellow librarian Alphise Brock decided to sit in on one of the group’s meetings “to see what they were up to.” The white supremacists asked them to sign in, which Doyle refused to do, then halted the pledge of allegiance when they noticed the librarians merely observing, not participating. NAAWP members berated the librarians for being “un-American” and started videotaping them. Doyle asked them to stop and when they didn’t, she turned off the lights. A few minutes later, the librarians exited and Dan Daniels, so-called “field commander” for the group, called them “reverse racists of the liberal persuasion.”
When local NAAWP leader Reno Wolfe, a former “construction worker living on disability” payments, wrote a letter to the city to complain about Doyle, Sylvia Cornell, acting director of libraries, responded with an official apology, then instructed all city librarians to stay out of NAAWP meetings and not to search their rifle bags. Cornell’s letter to city librarians said, “All we ask is that you treat these people with the same consideration you would anyone else and attempt not to read more into their actions than is truly there.” The rifle bags, it turned out, contained Confederate flags.
When Doyle responded with disappointment that Jacksonville Public Libraries had not defended her, nor her staff, against the belligerent actions of a white supremacist group that used a rhetoric of violence, she was suspended for 10 days without pay. A city attorney named Tracey Arpen said of the NAAWP, “I’m not sure there had been anything in their conduct that would give a reasonable fear for safety.” NAAWP members bragged about having the City of Jacksonville on their side. Wolfe said Pat Doyle “must be paranoid.” He told reporters that he and the NAAWP had accepted the city’s apology, but now demanded Doyle apologize to them personally. She never did.
Then someone noticed that the national hotline for the National Association for the Advance of White People shared an address with Jacksonville’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. Calls to the hotline connected to the doublewide trailer where J.D. Driggers lived on the elementary school campus. As window repairman for Duval County Public Schools for three decades and then night watchman for Thomas Jefferson, he’d lived at the elementary school, paying no rent, for 11 years.
Driggers blamed the publication of the hotline number on the telephone company BellSouth. He said he’d joined the NAAWP because he was not a racist, because he liked the idea of all people having “equal rights,” though an NAAWP newsletter headline said, “Not all men are created equal” and called that notion the “great lie” of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Shocking as this news might have been, it was much less egregious than Duval County Public Schools’ best known connection to the NAAWP. In 1995, the Duval County School Board was asked to appoint local leaders to a school desegregation task force. It had been four decades since the United States Supreme Court had decreed in its 1954 decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, that separate instruction was not equal instruction, that public schools could not remain segregated by race. Duval County Public Schools failed to desegregate until after the Beatles broke up two decades later and implemented federal guidelines in the worst ways possible, closing black schools with strong academics and firing respected black teachers, sending black students to new schools named for Confederate generals and Klan founders. When, in 1995, federal measures found Duval County schools still defective, School Board Member Linda Sparks responded by nominating Susan Lamb of the National Association for the Advancement of White People to a new task force on school desegregation.
By the time the hotline made news, city officials were getting used to apologizing to the NAAWP. Interim Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Donald Van Fleet said Driggers needed to leave the elementary school campus, not because Van Fleet had a problem with the racist group’s politics, but because the system prohibited use of school facilities for any non-school organizations. The white supremacist group itself, he said, was “not the issue.”
Fred Matthews, president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, said DCPS had to base such decisions in such terms. Joyce Cochran, however, principal of the almost totally white rural Westside school, said she had no problem with the white supremacist group on school grounds. “I don’t see this as an issue for the type of security this person provides,” she said.
That September, 1997, the 13th fell the day after Friday. Pinewoods winds still blew above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The NAAWP rallied supporters to Thomas Jefferson Elementary School to protest Driggers’s eviction. Two dozen protesters showed up. One said the problem was that the NAACP was “behind everything” and ran the country. A regional director named Tommy Prater called Van Fleet “gutless.” Nobody else cared.
It was a period of time—despite events like the Ruby Ridge Siege in 1992 and the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995—when violence and terrorism fomented by racist groups seemed to most Americans a thing of the past. Politicians running on platforms formerly overtly racist now coded messages in age-old racial stereotypes and “dog whistles.” Anyone who critiqued such politicians’ agendas as subtly (or not so subtly) racist would be attacked as racist themselves for even considering such possibilities. If you’d predicted the coming violence of events like the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, few Americans would have believed you.