Wrong Side of History

Biography explores postwar governor's failure to keep up with the changing attitudes in Florida


Governing on the Wrong Side of History
Governing on the Wrong Side of History

The name is mostly unknown to contemporary Floridians, but in the mid-20th century, Millard Fillmore Caldwell stood as one of the state's most powerful politicians, serving not only as governor but also as a U.S. congressman, member of the Florida House of Representatives and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Like some other Southern politicians of a certain era whose legacies have suffered because of their views on race, Caldwell has received scrutiny recently, too, in a 2020 biography by historian and author Gary Mormino.

The slim volume, Millard Fillmore Caldwell: Governing on the Wrong Side of History, focuses on a pivotal period in the Sunshine State's history, the postwar era. As Mormino put it in a previous book, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida, population growth after World War II transformed Florida from a rural backwater into a regional powerhouse. The three state universities became co-ed, and baseball spring training came to Vero Beach, among many other changes wrought in the immediate postwar era.

Born in eastern Tennessee in 1897 to a prosperous landowning family, Caldwell was named after his father, who was born in 1856 and named after former President Millard Fillmore, who was running for president that year as the candidate of the American Know-Nothings, an anti-immigration party.

The Caldwells moved to North Florida where the younger Caldwell, after serving in World War I, established himself as a lawyer, plantation owner and staunch Democratic office-holder. After serving as a state legislator and congressman, he ran for governor in 1943 and succeeded Spessard Holland as one of the state's two wartime governors.

Governors at that time couldn't run for re-election. As Mormino explains, the one-term rule grew out of hatred for Reconstruction, which allowed African Americans to vote and run for office. After Reconstruction ended, term limits were written into Florida's 1885 constitution to curb executive power.

Mormino tells why the all-male, all-white University of Florida and the all-female, all-white Florida State College of Women became co-educational after the war. [The latter school became Florida State University.] Caldwell signed enabling legislation in 1947. It was a practical matter that had to do with numbers and politics. The GI Bill of Rights made college tuition free for veterans, but there were far more applicants than available space. Old wartime barracks became housing for married students, with one complex at FSU nicknamed the Fertile Crescent.

Black students flocked to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and the naming of a new president who had survived a scandal at another school sparked outrage from African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston of Fort Pierce.

"Zora Neale Hurston wrote Walter White, executive director of the NAACP in November 1942, beginning her letter, 'Well, the Negroes have been bitched again!' " Mormino wrote. Hurston described the president as an "insignificant squirt" and accused him and his wife of cheating young black recruits at an Army Signal Corps facility at the other school.

Early in his term as governor, while the war was still going on, Caldwell wired all 67 Florida sheriffs urging them to "use their good offices to eliminate idleness" by enforcing work-or-fight laws.

"Quickly, it became evident that wartime 'work or fight' laws targeted African-Americans," Mormino wrote. "The sheriff of Martin County announced, 'It is going to be the policy of this office to cooperate with farmers, saw-mill men and others doing essential work to see that they get all the help available.' "

Caldwell's handling of a 1945 lynching in a rural north Florida county, in which he defended the officials involved and contended the crime was a murder but not a lynching, brought widespread criticism from the northern press and large Florida newspapers.

"The Northern press lampooned an embattled Southern governor who refused to dismiss officials who seemed, at best, insensitive and incompetent, and at worst, bigots," Mormino wrote. "Florida's most prominent newspapers criticized Caldwell's handling of the incident, branding the governor as stubborn, tone deaf and even embarrassing."

Caldwell also defended the white primary, which barred African Americans from voting in the primaries and registering as members of the Democratic Party, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against this practice.

"I look at the primary as being similar to a club," Caldwell said. "I feel in the primaries each party has the right to determine its own membership."

Racial issues also clouded major league baseball's spring training in Florida, which resumed after a wartime hiatus. Controversy arose when the Brooklyn Dodgers announced they had signed African American shortstop Jackie Robinson in 1947.

"Never before in this state or any other Southern state has a Negro played with whites in organized baseball," The New York Times reported. Robinson somehow survived the spring of discontent, locked parks and protests, Mormino wrote.

In 1948, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey hammered out a sweetheart deal with the city of Vero Beach to acquire the old Naval Air Station for a dollar a year as a permanent training facility for the team.

"For the shrewd Rickey the deal was not only profitable but it allowed 'the Mahatma' to integrate his team quietly and under the supportive cloak of Dodgertown and the small city of Vero Beach," Mormino said.

Three months later, Caldwell threw out a first-pitch ceremonial ball.

Mormino drew heavily from Caldwell's papers, official records, interviews with journalists and others who knew Caldwell. He also found a wealth of information in archives of newspapers, whose headlines alone are worth a look: "Gainesville Jammed with Students, Vets and Babies," from the Tampa Morning Tribune, Sept. 11, 1946; "North and South Florida Fight Renewed," St. Petersburg Times, June 2, 1945; Orlando Tells Tallahassee It Doesn't Want Capital," Tampa Morning Tribune," July 12, 1945, and others, many about issues long resolved or forgotten.

The author weaves it all together to present an interesting biography of a Southern politician and the times in which he lived, and his failure to adjust to increasing calls for racial equality.

"He was an exemplary figure, a man of his times, but the times changed, and he was incapable or unwilling to accept and adjust to new ideas, laws and attitudes," Mormino wrote.


Governing on the Wrong Side of History
By Gary R. Mormino
University Press of Florida
185 pages

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