Lawson Thomas and the Potent Combination of Direct Action and Negotiation
Before May 1945, African Americans were legally prohibited from swimming anywhere in Biscayne Bay. That month, Miami lawyer Lawson Thomas led a small demonstration to provide beach access, the first postwar act of non-violent resistance in the South, which forced the Dade County Commission to provide the first beach for African Americans, though it was legally segregated. This chapter provides a brief overview of problems related to beach access for African Americans in modern American history, particularly in Florida, and of the life of Lawson Thomas, an overlooked civil rights advocate who by the 1950s became the first black judge in the South since reconstruction. Thomas’ advocacy of Ghandian non-violent civil disobedience developed hand in hand alongside attempts at dialogue with selected white leaders in the community. Miami’s experience underscores the delicate balance of gradualism and local negotiations between blacks and whites over access to waterfront bathing.
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