TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Two months ago, more than 11,000 angry protesters marched here on Florida's Capitol to protest Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to end affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting.
Now the Florida governor is poised to sign legislation that would create two new law schools at the state's two public universities where African Americans and Hispanics make up a majority of students.
The Republican-controlled state Legislature, in the waning moments of its annual legislative session, unanimously passed a measure that allows Florida A&M University here and Florida International University in Miami to open their own law schools.
Black lawmakers were effusive and equated the bill in importance with 1994 legislation that compensated Black survivors of the Rosewood racial massacre in 1923.
"This is a surreal experience for me," says Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, noting past opposition. "This is absolutely momentous."
Florida A&M, the state's lone public historically Black college, will open its law school in either Tampa or Orlando. It is currently the largest feeder of African American law school applicants in the state.
"Rarely in the history of the struggle for equality has a state had a greater opportunity than Florida to redress a social wrong and resurrect a people's faith in justice and fair play," says Florida A&M's president, Dr. Frederick S. Humphries. "Restoring the law school to FAMU is good for the state. It is a situation where everybody wins -- the Legislature, fair-minded Floridians and all African Americans who know firsthand the power of FAMU to provide opportunities for them and their children."
Meanwhile Florida International will open its law school in the Miami area. The university provides the most minority applicants to law schools approved by the American Bar Association and is the No. 1 supplier of Hispanic law school applicants in the nation.
"We have waited many years for the opportunity to establish a law school to serve South Florida's diverse community," says Florida International president, Dr. Modesto A. Maidique.
Both schools have been given $2.5 million in this year's state budget to begin preparing to offer classes by 2003. Florida A&M estimated the cost of a law school building at $27.5 million. Florida International has proposed renovating an existing building for $2.8 million.
The new schools will be the first public law schools in any of Florida's urban areas and will offer classes to part-time students. Only full-time students can attend the state's two public law schools at the University of Florida and Florida State University, both of which are located in North Florida.
The passage of the legislation was a bittersweet moment for many African American lawmakers who have fought unsuccessfully for several years to restore Florida A&M's law school.
The university opened a law school in 1951 because Florida lawmakers did not want to integrate the University of Florida's law school at the time. But the school was shut down in 1968 after state legislators cut off funding and decided instead to create a new law school at Florida State University, the predominantly White college located a mile north of Florida A&M.
"This bill will heal an open wound," says Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa. "It also will do something vital for urban areas."
"This is one of the greatest days in the history of this state," says Rep. Joe Eggelletion, a South Florida Democrat who graduated from the historically Black school three years after the law school was shut down.
The drive for a new law school first began in 1991 when a commission created by the Florida Supreme Court pointed out the disparity in the state's justice system between those who controlled the system and the majority of those sentenced to prison. The commission recommended a new Florida A&M law school as a possible way to build up the number of African Americans serving as prosecutors, public defenders and judges. …