TALLAHASSEE -- A year ago, more than 10,000 people ushered in the 2000 legislative session by marching to the Capitol to protest measures they believed could hurt Florida's African-American community.
Since then, many black community leaders and some politicians, black and white, say race relations have only gotten worse in Florida and are likely to deteriorate even further. Last week Attorney General Bob Butterworth, citing several race-related incidents and policies that generated negative publicity for Florida in the past year, said the state is now seen by many as "the racism capital of the world."
New governmental policies, increased activism by African-American leaders and a record showing by black voters in the 2000 general election have created a crucible in which blacks have been both angered and energized.
The fallout from the previous year could continue into the 2001 legislative session, which starts today. Black lawmakers and social activists say they may have a larger voice in the Legislature and in governmental affairs now that African-Americans as a group have shown the power they can summon at election time.
"A lot of people trying to make decisions know now that we will vote," said former Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, now a labor leader in Florida. "The cat is out of the bag, and we're fired up and we're ready to go."
Some of the issues certain to be pushed by black legislators in the session and beyond: laws that would punish racial profiling; policies that demand equal pay for minorities and women; ensuring fair play during discussions of nursing home reform; and efforts to reduce the disproportionate impact privatization of government services could have on blacks.
Of course, Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida Initiative -- a move to replace affirmative action that started much of the racial discord in the state -- will continue to be debated.
Some black community leaders, even those who are supportive of Bush, point to the governor as the instigator of the recent slide in race relations.
The Rev. Joseph Wright, African-American pastor of the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, is generally supportive of Bush and thinks the governor's "heart is in the right place."
But even Wright, whom Bush has appointed to the state Ethics Commission and a special panel on election reform, said the governor has misjudged Florida's black community and mishandled attempts to reform programs that benefit blacks.
"In terms of race, things have gotten wider between the races, and racial hatred seems to be surfacing more often," Wright said. "It seems as if he [Bush] is trying to eliminate things that involve African-Americans, and I would say he has made things worse."
Bush has long presented himself as a friend to minorities and thinks his One Florida plan that would end affirmative action will ultimately make things better for blacks. Bush recently cried while telling a meeting of black ministers about how some of his African-American staff members have been mistreated for supporting the governor's plans.
Said Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur: "You look across the broad spectrum of what this governor has done on minority involvement in state government and in the private sector and it's impressive."
Baur points out that Bush has: appointed more women and blacks to judgeships than any other governor; increased the number of state contracts awarded to minority contractors; tripled the money spent on minority health issues; and with his One Florida plan, put far more minorities into Florida's university system without lowering admission standards.
In Bush's defense, the racial problems in Florida go far beyond and much further back historically than the arrival of Jeb Bush as governor in 1998. But the combination of Bush's controversial policies and the recent fallout from the state's history of racial problems have many Floridians worried about what the future may hold for race relations in Florida.
THE RACIAL DIVIDE
Florida's current race relations problem dates back to November 1999, when Bush first announced the One Florida plan.
Ironically, Bush said he proposed the One Florida plan as a way to avoid a divisive racial debate. His plan was announced just as California social activist Ward Connerly was gearing up to place onto the statewide ballot a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action programs. Bush saw his plan as a way to create a program similar enough to affirmative action to help minorities, but different enough to head off Connerly.
Yet no one could foresee how the announcement of the One Florida plan would lead to a widening of the political and social racial divide in Florida.
Minority and civil rights groups have made frequent marches on the Capitol, and race dominates many political conversations and debates.
Black community leaders kept up their political momentum all year by spending a night in Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan's office, organizing the March on Tallahassee and organizing frequent protests in Tallahassee. Racial issues also dominated the presidential election, from a high black turnout to a disproportionate number of black ballots being rejected to a Panhandle roadblock that stopped some black voters from reaching the polls on Election Day.
Just when things appeared to be settling down in Florida, an incident of discrimination in Perry has again stirred many blacks to action. Last week, about 60 civil rights and minority leaders visited the Perry Package bar where a Maryland lawmaker said he was told that because he was black he could drink only in a back room of the bar.
The Perry incident triggered numerous civil rights investigations, but also generated many complaints from blacks who have felt discrimination, Butterworth has said.
Additionally, the event has mobilized black legislative leaders, who have used the incident as a way to show that race issues remain a major problem in Florida.
"It's worse than we could ever imagine," said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, chairwoman of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators. "If it's so blatant in Perry, you know that it doesn't stop at their county line."
A LONG WAY TO GO
Many African-Americans talk of a general distrust of the white establishment in Florida, as evidenced by the reaction of some blacks to Bush's tearful speech last month.
Wright said he had doubts about the governor's sincerity. He said Bush comes from a "trust fund" background and finds it hard to believe that he is as sympathetic to blacks as he claims.
Hill called the tears "an Academy Award performance." Baur said the governor would not dignify those comments with a response.
Still, the diversion of sentiments about Bush's speech reveals there is a long way to go before racial harmony will rule the social and political landscape in Florida.
Yet Wright, for one, thinks the increasing presence of race as an issue in Florida government, politics and society will ultimately lead to reconciliation between the races.
"A lot of this may have always been hidden within the heart of the races, and these issues have helped permeate things and put them on the table," Wright said. "This may help us realize who we really are as a people, and give us a sense of direction."
2001 Legislature session opens today: For more coverage, log on to Jacksonville.com, keyword: Legislature.
Photo: met_marchcapitalsteps1 030700
More than 10,000 people ushered in the 2000 legislative session a year ago by marching to the Capitol to protest measures they believed could hurt Florida's African-American community, including Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida Initiative.…