By Randa Mathias, Kara Mattox, and Garrett D. Sheahan
1: Leon Lowry Interview, Part 1
The city of Tampa’s Bi-Racial Committee was founded in 1959 by Mayor Julian Lane in order to quell racial tensions and bolster Tampa’s image as a moderate, if not progressive, city in the southern state of Florida. Consisting of prominent businessmen and community leaders and chaired by Cody Fowler, the Bi-Racial Committee was designed to solve racial issues through discussion rather than through protest in the streets. The committee hoped to encourage racial equality through a gradual approach. During an interview in 1978, Reverend Leon Lowry, a leading black member of the Bi-Racial Committee and once-pastor of Tampa’s Beulah Church, illuminates how the first two meetings of the Bi-Racial Committee led to the largely successful sit-in at Woolworth lunch counter on February 29, 1960. Historian Steven Lawson describes this strategy of biracial negotiation as the “Tampa Technique.” This strategy, which stressed peaceful and measured integration, became the hallmark of the civil rights movement in Tampa as it bolstered the city’s reputation of progressivism.
2: Establishing Florida’s Bi-Racial Committee
On March 20, 1960, Florida’s Governor LeRoy Collins delivered a speech dedicated to race relations. This issue was at the forefront of public interest after the first major lunch counter sit-in occurred in Greensboro, N.C. on February 1, 1960. The Greensboro sit-in inspired other protests throughout the South, including in Florida. On March 12, a sit-in occurred in Tallahassee during which twelve demonstrators were arrested and police fired tear gas. In his speech, Collins admitted that he was “frankly ashamed” of the events in Tallahassee. In an attempt to take action and reestablish order, the Governor proposed the establishment of a statewide Bi-Racial Committee where black and white individuals “can take up and consider grievances of a racial character and … can honestly and sincerely and with a determined effort try to find solutions to these difficulties.” Tampa had already established a committee to deal with these issues, so Collins chose to invite Cody Fowler, the Tampa chairman, to head the state committee.
3: Responses to the Bi-Racial Committee
When LeRoy Collins called for the creation of the Bi-Racial Committee on March 20, 1960, it was apparent his plan would be controversial. Unlike many public officials, Collins took a moderate approach in dealing with race relations. In the months after the formation of the committee, Collins received mounds of letters from both supporters and opponents. One white supremacist stated that “there would be no trouble if the white people would only stick together and wage economic war against the blacks.” A Collins supporter wrote that “you can well know how very grateful we are that someone was daring enough to take such a stand, particularly when you felt that you were committing political suicide.” Even though individuals remained divided on the issue, Governor Collins’ Bi-Racial Committee allowed Florida to navigate calls for equality that would ring out out over the next decade.
4: Clarence Fort Interview
As the President of the NAACP Youth Council in Tampa, Clarence Fort played a crucial role in helping to desegregate the city. With the consent of the Bi-Racial Committee, Fort and Reverend Leon Lowry led students to Woolworth on February 29, 1960 for Tampa’s first organized sit-in. In this interview, Fort discussed why targeting lunch counters, a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement, became the preferred method for achieving integration. Fort recalled that it all came down to leverage and the ability to hurt businesses financially. Since the lunch counters were attached to larger department stores where African Americans shopped, they could demand to be seated or boycott the store. This method was less effective in restaurants, where black people were not regular patrons. In Tampa, the threat of boycott facilitated an agreement that opened the lunch counters for integrated dining in September 1960. In this interview, Fort recalls his participation in the first test run conducted that month at the desegregated lunch counter. Fort arrived at 10 AM and ordered breakfast. When two white men begin to antagonize Fort during his meal, the store manager and police stepped in to assist him. These recollections suggest that civic and business leaders believed racial reforms were essential if Tampa was to retain its reputation as a progressive, peaceful city.
5: Photo of Leon Lowry at Woolworth Sit-In
Reverend Leon Lowry had lived with racial injustice his whole life. After moving to Tampa from the North, he recognized that the city was still deeply segregated, in spite of its national reputation. As a well-known African American leader in the community, Leon Lowry saw an opportunity to promote change not only within the adult population, but especially among the youth. This picture shows Lowry taking part in the February 29, 1960 sit-in at Woolworth Department Store.
6: Newspapers React to Integration in Tampa
In early September 1960, due to the negotiations of the Bi-Racial Committee, eighteen major stores in Tampa were peacefully integrated “without fanfare.” Two newspaper articles offer two distinct perspectives on integration in Tampa. The article on the right, “Tampa Integrates Lunch Counters Without Incident” focuses on the success of the integration movement. The article on the left, “Judge Grayson Asks Boycott by Whites” reminds readers that, in spite of the lunch counter desegregation, Tampa was still a southern city, deeply rooted in white supremacy. Though Tampa was special in its relatively calm transition to desegregation, the opposition to integration from prominent members of the community, including a Criminal Court Judge, dispels the myth that Tampa lacked the racial tensions of a Jacksonville or Tallahassee.
7: Photograph of Rev. Leon Lowry and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this undated photo, Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen walking beside Tampa’s unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Leon Lowry. Before becoming a civil rights activist and leader in Tampa, Leon Lowry taught philosophy at Boston University. During his time at BU, Lowry taught a young King, who, according to Lowry, showed promise in his ability to speak for “the underdog.” Lowry moved to Tampa in 1956 and quickly gained a reputation within Tampa’s African-American community for his good character and his skills as an orator. In 1959, Lowry was selected as a member of Tampa’s Bi-Racial Committee. Lowry became a main proponent of full desegregation within the committee. Although the eye naturally goes to King, Lowry’s presence reminds observers of the importance of the lesser-known heroes of history.
8: Leon Lowry Interview, Part 2
As we have seen, Leon Lowry found himself at the helm of the sit-in demonstrations in Tampa. In this interview, conducted in 1978, Lowry discusses his family and his activist heritage. He remembers his father as “a fighter for human rights and dignity and for first class citizenship for blacks.” Coming from this background, Lowry states, “the idea of fighting for first class citizenship—had been ingrained and been taught many, many, many years before. So it was not a difficult thing to just continue and involve myself here in Tampa.” Lowry remembers facing ferocious opposition in Tampa. He states “there were those who were after me, with baseball bats and ax handles and things of that nature, but because of the proximity of officers assigned to guard me, I never was harmed, fortunately. There are bullet holes in the windows of the house over there that are still there, and you can take a look at them.”