Her name appeared in every news report about the Florida school shooting. It was stamped on the historic gun-control legislation passed soon after. And now, as fired-up crowds arrive in Washington for the March for Our Lives, it will be invoked once again: Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
The woman whose name adorns the school where a consequential shift in the movement against gun violence began was an activist herself. Douglas had a reputation for relentlessly challenging politicians and powerful political interests even on issues that seemed like lost causes at the time – a description that almost eerily parallels the efforts of the teenagers leading the charge today.
It’s a coincidence, to be sure. But when nearly every other high school in the surrounding area bears only the placid-sounding name of its local community (Coconut Creek High School, Coral Glades High School . . .), it’s striking that the name of the Parkland school is an homage to someone who spent her life fighting the status quo, just as a new generation of activists is doing now.
“I would bet my soul that Mrs. Douglas would not only approve, but applaud,” said Jeff Klinkenberg, a former columnist for the Tampa Bay Times and one of the last journalists to interview Douglas before she died in 1998 — at the age of 108.
Google her to learn what she did with all those years, and you’ll find her best-known crusade: saving the Florida wetlands that politicians wanted to drain and develop.
But long before she was dubbed “Empress of the Everglades,” Douglas was an advocate who, like the students who would come after her, cared little about how someone of her age and stature was supposed to act. At 25, she got a job at the Miami Herald, the newspaper her father founded. As a young woman in 1915, she was expected to write about parties, gossip and subjects as diverse as “flowers and sunsets and tree planting,” wrote her biographer, Jack E. Davis.
On her third day, she did a story about the women’s suffrage movement.
“She wrote whatever the hell she wanted to write about,” Davis said. That turned out to be: ranting against the KKK, shaming her readers for not knowing that Florida was still running a slavery-like convict-leasing program and demanding the creation of a public welfare office for the protection of children.
She once suggested that the members of the state legislature should be awarded a prize “for their earnest and efficient work in not passing all the bills that were brought to them to pass.” (Sound familiar?) She called the two-party political system “an old-fashioned, noisy, illogical unnecessary nuisance.” That was what she learned in 1917, when she took a train to Tallahassee to persuade lawmakers to allow women to vote. She later compared the experience to talking to “dead mackerel.”
“They never paid attention to us at all. They weren’t even listening,” she recalled in her autobiography, “Voice of the River.” “This was my first taste of the politics of north Florida.”
And there, too, was another parallel between Douglas and the students who demanded change from lawmakers just hours after their classmates became targets of an AR-15. She wasn’t politically active because she enjoyed politics; she believed that the circumstances demanded her participation.
That’s what happened when she was in her 70s, more than 20 years after she published her famous book, “The Everglades: River of Grass.” She was set up for a comfortable retirement: She had a house to herself, a reputation as a beloved writer, a steady supply of Desmond & Duff, her favorite scotch.
Meanwhile, the state was making plans to build a vast airport (then called a jetport) on top of the Everglades.
The fight to stop the draining of the wetlands, much like the fight for gun control, had been going on for decades. Douglas’s own father had advocated to save them in the early 1900s. But the titans of the sugar industry and the rapid development of South Florida were powerful forces.
The idea that a tiny old woman, bedecked in a straw hat and pearls, might win such a fight was laughable.
“It was very much an uncertain outcome,” said former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was on the receiving end of many of Douglas’s demands. “The Everglades, for many people, was still seen as a swamp, and that it was the goal of mankind to make something more ‘normal’ out of it.”
She wrote letters, met with influential community members and gave impassioned speeches at public hearings. Her eyesight had deteriorated so much that she could no longer make out the faces in the crowd, but she could hear them yelling: “Go home, Grandma!” (She did not, in fact, have any children.)
And eventually, she won. The airport construction was halted. Requests for additional drainage permits were turned down. Everglades restoration projects were funded. When Graham was successful in achieving one of Douglas’s goals, she would say to him, “Robert, you’ve got a lot more work to do.”
Still, the Everglades shrank as construction continued in many parts of Florida. Houses, shopping centers and golf courses appeared where the wetlands used to be. Entire new communities formed – including the town that would become Parkland.
By 1990, Parkland was large enough to need its own high school. It was decided that the school would be named after one of the state’s most successful activists, who by then was 100 years old. After winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom and being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Douglas was finally retiring into a quieter life.
She left behind an organization – Friends of the Everglades – that would continue her fight, following the example she had set and her writings on what it takes to be an activist.
“Be a nuisance where it counts, but don’t be a bore at any time,” Douglas once wrote. “Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failures and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics — but never give up.”
It was that quote (with the “bore” part cut out) that circled the Internet on March 14, the day thousands of students nationwide walked out of their classrooms in support of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Someone had hung a banner with the quote on it outside the school. The county superintendent tweeted a photo of it. Douglas’s name lived on.
Davis, her biographer, never could find any evidence of how Douglas felt about having a high school built on top of the Everglades named after her. He had always thought it was a bit of an insult. The students, he says, have changed his mind.