Tampa historians reflect on decades of change brought about by protests

Thousands of people across the Tampa Bay area and the United States are speaking up about racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd, and the demonstrations are significant in light of America’s long battle for civil rights.

Protests are a traditional way of showing dissent and the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police in the last decade have pushed Americans to march for justice.

“A protest could be more spontaneous, more short-lived, and for civil rights activists, it’s a hope that a protest will grow into becoming an organized movement,” said Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg.

Today, it’s a movement for black lives.

“Marches and demonstrations, nothing new to America when it comes to African Americans demonstrating and pushing for their rights and representation, for respect,” said Fred Hearns, a historian and Tampa native.

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Hearns lived through America’s earliest movement for African Americans, the civil rights era. Tampa reached its own tipping point in 1967 when a young black man, Martin Chambers was shot and killed by a white police officer.

“First of all, you had the civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s and the 1960s. You had the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but there were a lot of people who were resistant to changing their ways,” said Hearns.

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Unrest followed for three days and history shows those moments of protest led to community discussion. Fast forward more than 50 years to today where historians said the feel of the current protests is familiar but with some key differences.

“I don't think we've seen the number of white folks turn out by the thousands all over this nation as well as Hispanics, marching with African Americans saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘I can't breathe,’” said Hearns.

Arsenault said protests can unite under a common cause, all in hopes of creating change.

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“I think so many people don’t really take the time to look and see what’s actually happening,” said Aresnault. “There’s still time I think for people to respond to the issues.”

Hearns said it’s up to the community leaders to get together with officials and start a conversation for what needs to change to break the cycle.