Recent use of excessive force by law enforcement officers, accentuated by the Roy Middleton shooting on July 27th, prompted a Pensacola town hall meeting on Saturday, August 10th. The meeting was attended by Julian Bond, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and hosted by NAACP Florida State Conference President Adora Nwezi and Pensacola Branch President Dr. John Veasley. Several members of the Coalition for Justice were present including Movement for Change and the SCLC. County Commissioner Lumon May, AFL/CIO union members, pastors of various churches, families with cases related to the Escambia County Sheriff Department all made up a crowd nearing 200 at Greater True Vine Missionary Baptist Church on Pace Boulevard.
Middleton’s family members sat in the first row as members of families who have allegedly experienced excessive force by the Escambia Sheriff’s Department testified to the crowd. A couple from Warrington shared their experience of deputies breaking into their home without a search warrant, roughing up the couple and shooting their dogs, killing one.
Jackie Walker told the story of how her son, Devon Walker, was beaten profusely by deputies at a Creighton Road trailer park the same morning Roy Middleton was shot. Rosa Middleton, Roy’s sister, challenged those in attendance “that something needs to be done and it can’t be without you. Additionally, persons with concerns related to the purpose of the event were asked to place their questions on an index card and pass them forward to be responded to.
Julian Bond, an icon of the modern civil rights movement, spoke to the audience and framed the history of racial violence and racist police actions in the United States and Florida. Bond began with a history lesson on the Lake County black men, the Groveland Boys, falsely accused of rape in 1948. A book, Devil in the Grove, documents the story of a crooked sheriff and a racist court which made a mockery of the justice system.
One of the men was shot dead by the sheriff’s posse and another killed by a Lake County mob. The remaining two men were World War II veterans convicted during what was described as a circus of a trial. Thurgood Marshall, in one of his first legal cases, persuaded the United States Supreme Court to overturn their convictions and won them a new trial. However, the Lake County Sheriff, while transporting the black men from Raiford State Prison back to county jail, claimed he had a flat tire and when he allowed them to get out of the car (while he changed the tire) he was attacked by both of the handcuffed men and had to shoot them both. One man survived while playing dead, but was still convicted again after he refused to plead guilty for a crime he did not commit. Florida Governor Leroy Collins commuted his sentence and he was paroled from prison in 1968.
Julian Bond painted a picture which placed Roy Middleton’s case alongside other Florida cases like the Groveland Boys and Trayvon Martin. He challenged the audience to remember, “We are now asked to believe that 200 years of being someone’s property, followed by 100 years of legal oppression in the South and discrimination in the North can be wiped away by four-and-a-half decades of half-hearted remediation and one black president. The truth is that Jim Crow may be dead, but racism is alive and well.”
Tallahassee Branch President and northwest Florida NAACP regional vice-president, Dale Landry stated that Florida has a “culture of indifference” and that the NAACP knows the history of Pensacola and northwest Florida as it relates to racial problems. He spoke of a bike rider that was run over by a City of Pensacola Police cruiser, the University of West Florida hangman nooses in the trees, and the Mariana Dozier School for Boys where the NAACP joined in the fight to dig up the nearly 100 bodies of the black and white boys to determine if they were murdered.
State President Nwese stated that there is much work to be done because “we do not just come here to talk!” She said that there are certain steps that should be taken to complete the NAACP’s involvement in addressing the issues being discussed. She then began to list the actions to be taken. One step is for the NAACP to “give this community an opportunity to work together” and she commented on the racially mixed audience in attendance at the town hall meeting as an example.
Another action to be taken is for the NAACP to contact State Attorney General Pam Bondi for assistance in the ongoing process of seeking justice. She then offered other steps that must be taken by concerned community members such as joining the NAACP, registering to vote, and the further identification of any additional cases. She advised that persons or families with knowledge of other incidents of excessive force by law enforcement to contact the local Pensacola Branch of the NAACP. Nwese made a strong commitment to return to Pensacola to review the progress of identified cases and to meet with Sheriff David Morgan on the issue of the use of excessive force.