Saturday, August 05, 2017

Mobs, Fires Fueled Summer of Riots in Riviera Beach, West Palm Beach
By Barbara Marshall
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

A firefighter crouches on railroad tracks while battling a blaze at the L.D. Mullins Lumber Company in Riviera Beach the night of July 30, 1967. Following a bar fight and arrest, about 400 rioters set fire to two company warehouses during a racial disturbance in which 45 people were arrested.
Posted: 7:15 a.m. Friday, July 28, 2017

In 1967, the Blue Heron bar was a Riviera Beach jook joint near the Port of Palm Beach known for its regular menu of stabbings and shootings.

A fight that began there 50 years ago briefly propelled Riviera Beach into national news during the nation’s long, hot summer of 1967, when race riots swept the United States.

Across the country, young blacks who had grown impatient with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent civil rights tactics were fueling a growing Black Power movement.

Cries of “Burn, baby, Burn” replaced “We Shall Overcome.”

Riots that summer scarred more than 150 U.S. cities, including Newark, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Newark, Boston, Cincinnati and Tampa. A week before the Riviera Beach fire, Detroit had erupted in cataclysmic civil unrest that left 43 dead and 2,000 buildings destroyed.

Across the country, blacks and whites were on edge.

In Riviera Beach, segregation was still the rule in schools and housing. A wall separated the white Monroe Heights subdivision from surrounding black neighborhoods. Blacks couldn’t visit their own city’s Singer Island beach.

“Lord knows we had enough to fuss about,” remembered retired chief circuit court judge Edward Rodgers, who will be 90 next month. In 1967, Rodgers was an assistant prosecutor and the only black in the county’s court system, he recalled recently. In 1973, he became the county’s first black judge.

“Civil rights legislation had been passed in the mid-’60s, but those laws hadn’t worked their way into the system here yet,” said Rodgers who went on to become a Riviera Beach city councilman and mayor.

The night of July 30, a bar fight became a struck match that found plenty of fuel.

At the Blue Heron, the patrons were black, as were about half of Riviera Beach’s residents. The city’s police force was mostly white.

After police arrested a 27-year-old black man named James Mitchell, a rumor spread that he had been beaten by police.

Another rumor flew, accusing police of battering innocent bystanders. A growing crowd grew angrier by the minute.

About 400 mostly black residents surged into the sweltering summer night, The Palm Beach Post reported.

By midnight, two wooden warehouses at the nearby Mullins Lumber Company yard were blazing in a fire that could be seen for miles.

“It looked like the end of the world,” recalled Karran Cunningham, then 15, who could see the leaping flames from her family’s home a few blocks away.

Karran’s father, attorney Malcolm Cunningham, Sr., the first black elected to the Riviera Beach City Council, rushed out the door to try to calm the crowd.

“I think he was wearing a pajama top,” said Karran. “I didn’t want him to go over there, but he was trying to get people to go home.”

Cunningham’s son, Malcolm, Jr., a West Palm Beach attorney who was 10 that night, remembers his mother turning off all the lights, leaving them scared and huddled in the dark waiting for their father to return.

“The African American community was resisting the Jim Crow laws being imposed upon us,” said Cunningham, Jr. “My father was trying … to give voice to that and at the same time try to calm things.”

The fire brought out a massive response from the West Palm Beach police department, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol. Officers wearing gas masks and riot helmets raced to the scene near what is today port property, where Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard meets the Florida East Coast Railroad tracks.

A silent four-and-a-half minute color film in Florida Memory, the state’s archives, shows firefighters battling a raging inferno, police officers crouching for protection behind their cars and later, arresting men and women and putting them in paddy wagons.

Some in the crowd pelted police and firefighters with bricks and bottles as the mob demanded that Mitchell be released.

Afraid of an escalation in violence, police let Mitchell go briefly, insisting he had not been injured by police.

“Anything they could do to cool the temper of the mob was worth this action,” then-Riviera Beach mayor Max Hammer said later. “The slightest mistake in judgment could have resulted in death and tragedy and considerably more property damage.”

In about four hours, it was over; 45 black men and women had been arrested on rioting charges.

Two of Mullins Lumber Company’s buildings, one rented to a plastics company, were destroyed. Damages were estimated at $350,000.

The next night, Walter Cronkite announced the nation’s racial unrest had reached little Riviera Beach, Florida, as the screen filled with footage of the blaze, recalled Larry Mullins, 72, whose family owned the lumber company.

“My father called me at college to tell me we were on the CBS Evening News,” said Mullins, the third generation owner of the company started by his grandfather.

Malcolm Cunningham Jr. marvels at the absence of gunfire that night. “Not one person was shot, whereas today there would be shooting,” he said. “Clearly, it’s not a good thing to destroy property as an act of civil disobedience, but it was a way to bring attention to conditions in the black community at the time.”

Despite the next days’ uneasy calm, residents worried the violence would spread. Area gun shops removed their weapons from displays. Liquor stores boarded up.

In West Palm Beach, Mayor Reid Moore, Jr. refused Gov. Claude Kirk Jr.’s offer of a curfew, saying, “I am optimistic we have passed the blow-up point.”

The next night, police broke up a crowd gathered at Rosemary Avenue and Fourth Street in West Palm Beach. Angry young blacks fire bombed Lindsley Lumber Company and another business in the city, but the fires were quickly extinguished. Fourteen teenagers were arrested, according to The Post.

It was trial by fire for new Palm Beach County Sheriff William Heidtman, an accountant, insurance salesman and active Republican party member, on his first day after being appointed by Gov. Kirk.

The next day, Heidtman announced he would ask for a “large increase” in his budget for riot-related expenses, according to The Post.

In Riviera Beach, angry residents at a city council meeting accused its police department of brutality as well as targeted traffic law enforcement aimed at the black community.

“The rule of the Riviera Beach police department is not what you do but who does it,” one man complained.

The 45 people arrested, several as young as 17, were taken to court “manacled together in long lines,” the newspaper reported, to be told that their bonds of $10,000 would not be lowered until a committee investigated their backgrounds.

Rodgers was named one of the committee’s members.

“Judge (Russell) McIntosh was not a liberal, not by a long shot,” said Rodgers. “But he thought maybe my handling of it would make them feel that this guy of their same color would do things right.”

The accused rioters remained in jail for four days until bail was reduced enough that most could go home.

Florida’s elected officials cast around for someone to blame. “Latin Reds” such as Fidel Castro, as well as black activists H. Rap Brown and Stokeley Carmichael were accused of orchestrating the riot in Riviera Beach as well as others across the country.

In the aftermath of the riot, federal programs brought jobs to Riviera Beach, Karran Cunningham remembers. “Afterwards, it seemed like things got a little better,” she said.

Not so for the Mullins family, who learned their insolvent insurance company could pay only 20 percent of their claim at the same time a Bahamas business venture failed. The family was forced to sell their 10-acre lumber yard near the port and move to the west side of the city, where the company remains today, run by Mullins’ two sons.

“Everyone, the blacks and the whites, always said the fire had nothing to do with (us),” said Larry Mullins. “My father (Moon Mullins, a former University of Florida football star) always said it was a crime of opportunity.”

Rodgers and Cunningham, Sr. went on to join local civil rights icons who fought for school desegregation and equal treatment in the county’s justice system.

“We’ve come a long way, there’s no doubt about it,” said Cunningham, Jr.

But we still have further to go, said Rodgers, who has been critical of State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s handling of the Corey Jones police shooting case in October, 2015, in which the black drummer was shot by a white Palm Beach Gardens police officer.

“Certainly, it’s much better, but selective police enforcement, it still exists, but it’s not quite as bad.”

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