by Tim Gilmore, 11/4/2023
1. Barber and Statesman?
While “a barber by trade,” wrote Otis Perkins of The Florida Times-Union, Warren H. Folks was “better known for his conservatism and sign-carrying protests that finally landed him in prison.” It was October 1975 and, for the moment, he’d worn himself out. “I haven’t worked as a barber in the last five years,” Folks told Perkins. “I’m trying to get out of debt, get back on my feet and get my bearings.”
Folks would soon move from his longtime barber shop at 7 Hogan Street, across from the Seminole Hotel, to the 1920s United Cigar Store Building between the old Carnegie Library and the modernist new Main Library at Ocean and Adams Streets. The wooden “cigar store Indian” that once stood at the corner doorway had migrated elsewhere when Folks set up shop.
Warren Henry Folks often wrote his “W” big and “hite” beneath “Warren,” so that it looked like his name was “Warren White Folks.” He was a former member of the American Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan and the National States’ Rights Party. He’d recently headed the Conservative Citizens Council and at 106 East Adams Street in 1977, he founded the Conservative Church of Christ.
He’d already run for Florida House of Representatives and Senate. He’d run for Senate again and for governor in 1990. He campaigned on promises to restore “prayer in public schools,” to stop forced busing to desegregate schools, to create “tuition grants for parents of children who prefer private schools,” to oppose “gun control legislation,” to “restore respect for police officers,” to “abolish tolls from all Jax bridges,” to “oppose all forms of exorbitant taxes coupled with race mixing,” to castrate “homo-sexuals and all other perverts,” to expand the Jacksonville Port Authority, to “secure Equal Rights for White Folks,” to oppose “teaching the Darwin theory of evolution (We DID NOT come from apes!)” and to “reduce the present cost of automobile tags.”
In the April 21, 1977 edition of The Jacksonville Journal, an ad appeared in the form of an “Open Letter to my 20 Thousand Friends (Both Black and White) Who Supported My ’74 Senate Race.” The ad featured a photo of Folks in a suit and tie, hair slicked back, looking quite Barry Goldwater, with the caption, “A Christian – A Patriot – A Statesman.”
The letter began, “Dear Friends: Guess what? I’m in jail again.” He claimed to have been a “political prisoner” in ’75, when he “protested treason, sabotage, mutiny and violence in the American Navy from which you know I am honorably retired.” Now he was in jail for “battery of a law enforcement officer,” bond set at $700. “Being financially poor (a working man) like many of you good ‘Folks supporters,’ I simply could not raise the money to gain my freedom.”
The rambling circuitous letter continued, “I appeal to you to help me TODAY, so I can help you TOMORROW to win our righteous war against [the Jacksonville Electric Authority], which said declaration of war was reported in the Times Union March 13, 1977.” In his first 13 days in jail, he said he’d been assaulted four times, all by white guards, adding “to date, no black man has harmed me, to the contrary, one black Sgt. saved my life.”
Furthermore, Folks wrote, “Unless I am killed, (and thus silenced forever), or falsely branded insane, in order to discredit my testimony, I can, and will again, convict certain elected and appointed officials of the Consolidated City of Jacksonville. Why not? This jail house will hold them just as good as it does me!”
Finally, he told any readers who’d made it this far that he’d borrowed $500 to purchase the ad space for this letter and needed them to step up and reimburse him promptly. “So please don’t let me down. I am counting on you to do your part.” Readers should get on their phones and read this letter to friends. If it still wasn’t clear what the letter was about, the final line got to the point, imploring Folks’s supporters to “help spread the word like wild-fire if you want your light bill lowered.”
2. Snake Pits and Underbellies
At what age these particular problems started, it might be impossible to ascertain. Born in Ocala in 1920, Warren Folks returned from the Korean War in his early 30s, later saying he’d been “in and out of the veteran hospitals,” in which he’d received electroshock therapy.
He erupted across the city’s political underbelly in the midst of the 1960s, walking the streets of black neighborhoods and Downtown public spaces, holding racist placards high on broomsticks and metal poles. He sent menacing letters to politicians and journalists and the sheriff, promised to shut down the newspapers when they didn’t see things his way, and threatened lawsuits left and right.
“Several years ago,” he typed in a small message to the city desk of The Florida Times-Union, “prior to my escape from a Federal ‘snake pit’ (insane asylum), while incarcerated as a political prisoner, with nothing better to do at the time to pass the lonely hours, I undertook a vast research project of the so-called ‘SWASTIKA’ subject.”
In fact, Warren Folks’s political awakening seemed to germinate from a desperate new need to engage with local newspapers, most frequently, at first, in the form of a young woman journalist named Jessie-Lynn Kerr, who began her 47 year career with The Florida Times-Union in 1964. He’d married Trumie Abitha Shaw of Ocala in 1945, fathered two daughters, and finally divorced in ’58.
Folks sent Kerr mail for decades, sometimes pathetically flattering, more often bullying. He sent Kerr and Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal city editors mail with swastikas drawn on the envelopes. His letters contained a million variations of “Death to All Traitors!” and “[President Lyndon] Johnson hates the white race and the U.S. Constitution. We want him investigated too – and hung for treason!” and “Communism is Jewish!” and “The KKK does not endorse VIOLENCE – they believe the enemies of Christ & America (The KIKES & KOONS), can be defeated at the POLLS with VOTES … but WE believe the job will have to be done in BLOOD & HUMAN LIVES in the STREETS with BULLETS, BOMBS and RAW, NAKED TRUTH!”
3. Slip of the Razor
In September 1979, Folks sued Woodstock Park Church of Christ, which had expelled him from its congregation – disfellowshipped him. He’d begun his own church, the Conservative Church of Christ, in his barbershop on East Adams in 1977. After Sunday morning services, Woodstock Park church trustees voted, 19 to nothing, to remove Folks for “sowing discord.” Folks said the church violated his “civil rights” and his “Christian rights” and referred to the 19 trustees as “Preacher Adams and his 18 member majority faction.”
He’d written four church trustees the same kind of rambling, seething letter he’d been sending to other church members, telling the “gentelmen,” [sic], “I give you until high noon” to “furnish particulars.” He said he’d “rather see the church closed than integrated” and signed off, “It is not my desire to ‘cross swords’ with you brothers, but regrettably, it was YOU, not I, that drew the battle lines.”
As the threatened lawsuit dissipated, Folks cut hair on Adams Street, wearing vests and hats fronted with Confederate flags, even got himself pictured in an issue of Life Magazine that had Frank Sinatra on the cover. You could get a crew cut and a copy of a racist newspaper like The Jacksonville Herald-American or The Thunderbolt, published by J.B. Stoner in Alabama, which claimed to represent “The White Man’s Viewpoint” and printed headlines like “LBJ Attempts Genocide on White Race,” “Private White Schools the Only Answer” and “Never Before Has Any President Called for Mongrelization.”
Folks’s business cards said, “If U-R for Socialism, Integration and Race-Mixing,” then you should “STAY OUT of the Professional Barber Shop…unless U-R will’in 2 chance a ‘slip of the razor’ on your N**r-lovin throat.”
4. The Spenkelink Calamity
Around the country, in the spring of 1981, headlines read “Body of Executed Man Exhumed Today” and “Body Exhumed in Electrocution Probe” and “Coroner says Spenkelink Conscious at Execution.”
It was Warren Folks’s wildest crusade yet, a departure from his usual culture wars. In the 1960s, Folks tried to arrest Civil Rights leaders like Rutledge Pearson with “Klan warrants” and hung or burnt effigies of Martin Luther King and the managing director of the Jacksonville Electric Authority. He served 150 days in federal prison in 1975 for “disrupting discipline” at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. He made national headlines the next year when he tried to halt the Food and Drug Administration’s destruction of more than 400 pounds of apricot pits it had seized as hazardous from a St. Augustine health food store called Tree of Life. The government had no right, he said, becoming an instant advocate for cancer patients he claimed the pits could cure.
Now Folks had ensconced himself in the home of the mother of executed murderer John Spenkelink in Buena Park, California. He’d lobbied to have Spenkelink’s body exhumed and examined and convinced Lois Spenkelink to sue the State of Florida on behalf of his Conservative Church of Christ, headquartered in his Downtown Jacksonville barbershop.
John Spenkelink was executed at Florida State Prison at Raiford in 1979 for the 1973 murder of smalltime crook Joseph Szymankiewicz in Tallahassee. Warren Folks, however, claimed prison officials tortured and murdered Spenkelink prior to executing him to stop him from implicating them in drug trafficking. Folks called it “a conspiracy to keep John’s mouth shut.”
Al Lee said otherwise. He was the Department of Corrections spokesman whose job was to escort members of the press to view the execution. Lee said he saw Spenkelink in the electric chair “with his eyes open. There was perspiration on his face and a look of terror.”
Folks had started a group called Christians for Justice, which raised the funds to pay for the office of the Los Angeles Medical Examiner to exhume Spenkelink from his Whittier, California grave and conduct an autopsy. Folks assured Lois she could sue the State of Florida for a million bucks and Lois, in turn, promised to donate the money to the Conservative Church of Christ.
While staying in her house, Folks answered Lois Spenkelink’s phone and accompanied her to interviews, sometimes ending her statements to journalists. Her attorney, David Gady, said Folks was trespassing, that by “force and duress,” Folks had persuaded Lois to grant him power of attorney, and that he’d made numerous tapes of conversations with Lois and her two daughters “without their consent.” Gady said Folks was “taking advantage of an old woman. She’s too motherly of a lady to resist it.”
In fact, the case seemed to have twisted Folks’s politics against him. He’d first become interested because he’d heard Spenkelink killed Szymankiewicz because he’d stolen his money and committed a “homosexual assault” against him, neither of which turned out to be true. By the end of the ordeal, Lois had become, for a moment, a mother’s face against capital punishment, which Folks never faltered in supporting.
By April, the whole furor had blown away. Medical examiners said Spenkelink’s execution had killed him and Lois kicked Folks out of her house. Now Folks was being treated for minor wounds at a Glendale, California hospital after a man who’d rented him a cheap room held him hostage for half an hour and beat him senseless.
4. “From the Desk of the ‘Ole Red Neck'”
When he lost his 1988 bid for the Senate, Warren Folks said the election had been stolen. He took to referring to himself as “Senator-Elect Warren Folks.” He ran for governor in 1990. When he lost the barbershop, he started calling himself an “itinerant preacher man.”
He blamed President Clinton when he ended up dependent on the State and lived for a short time in Hogan’s Creek Tower, which provided housing for low-income and indigent senior citizens. In early 1996, when he lost his place there after threatening other residents and handing out racist pamphlets, he launched a vitriolic letter campaign against the Jacksonville Housing Authority, accusing the JHA of “racial prejudice, examples of racial tyranny, deceit, and satanic chicanery.”
Folks typed his screeds on letterhead that featured his Barry Goldwater-esque campaign image from 25 years before and the heading “From the desk of the ‘Ole Red Neck’…The Florida ‘Cracker’ who seeks to represent Hetro-sexual Florida in the United States Senate while our draft-dodging, pot-smoking, pro-homosexual Commander-in-Chief, ‘Billy-Boy’ Clinton, will represent ‘Homosexual Florida’ and all AIDS infected sodomites, while Evangelist Folks and the USA will oppose Clinton and his homosexual cohorts.” [multiple Sics].
He spent the next few years homeless, frequently carrying his hate-scrawled placards, wearing fatigues and his camouflage eight-point cover, in front of Downtown businesses. The old barbershop stood empty. Within still ticked a clock.
A bar called The London Bridge moved into the corner location of the old cigar store building. Old newspapers, wilted brittle, blew against the door at the center of the corner. After Folks died in 2011, 91 years old, his erstwhile church and barbershop of bile became home to 5 And Dime Theater Company, a bloodstain submerged in old cobwebs, witching-hour rats, and a restaurant called Chomp Chomp.
In the spring of 1977, Warren Folks was arrested for carrying a shotgun up to the 14th floor of City Hall and entering Mayor Hans Tanzler’s offices. It was his Constitutional right, he said, to take his shotgun anywhere he wanted. While a worker named H.G. Joyner bolted together a steel frame for reinforced security doors, Folks came back, unarmed this time, to show his amusement. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Rocco Morabito took a picture of Folks’s perverse victory lap.