The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The day Florida teachers resigned en masse in the country’s first statewide strike

Florida teachers with protest signs during the 1968 walkout. (State Archives of Florida)

Some teachers left goodbye messages to their students on classroom blackboards. Others cleared their desks.

It was Feb. 16, 1968, a Friday, and a sign of what was coming that Monday in Florida: the nation’s first statewide teachers strike.

On Thursday, West Virginia’s teachers staged a statewide walkout over pay and benefits, closing school for more than 275,000 students.

In Florida a half-century ago, schools opened their doors, but more than 40 percent of the state’s teachers didn’t walk through them.

“Half of Florida Teachers Resign Over School Aid,” read a front-page Washington Post story, which cited estimates that between 25,000 and 35,000 of the state’s 61,000 educators didn’t show up for class. Their actions amounted to resignations because the state did not permit teachers to strike.

The walkout would last weeks, fuel fears about unions and contribute to the changing image of public school educators from meek to militant. At a time when strikes by public employees were becoming more common across the country, the stance taken by Florida’s teachers stood out for its scale.

Florida Gov. Claude Kirk had rushed home over the weekend from California “to urge the teachers not to ‘leave your children,’ but then returned to take his family to Disneyland,” The Post article noted.

The teachers’ grievances centered on low pay and inadequate funding for schools that were struggling under neglect and a population boom. Kirk, meanwhile, had vowed not to raise taxes.

With teachers absent, classes across the state were canceled and schools closed.

“It would appear at this time that the teachers of Florida have successfully made their point,” Phil Constans Jr., executive secretary of the Florida Education Association, which led the strike, said in a news release on Feb. 19, 1968. “We regret having to close schools, but it proved to be the only course left to the profession after the politicians of this state failed to meet their responsibilities to the children.”

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In one county alone, more than 6,000 teachers gathered together in a cold rain, he said, and in another, 1,000 teachers shivered in an unheated rodeo arena.

The strike stirred anxiety locally and in other major cities, which had seen unrest among its own.

“The rising militancy of public employees, from New York garbagemen to Florida teachers, is a danger signal in the country,” read one editorial at the time. “The idea that it can be blackmailed by sweeping disruption of education is alien to American principles — no matter how great the grievances.”

“Don’t mess with me, I’m a TEACHER!” read a political cartoon at the time that depicted a woman towering over a group of small figures labeled “The Public.”

Administrators in Florida scrambled to find substitutes, certified or not, to take teachers’ places. Suddenly classes were being led by college students, retired teachers and housewives.

Gary Cornwell, who was a junior at Titusville High School at the time, recalled a former Army drill sergeant teaching one of his classes. On the morning students were planning a walkout in a show of solidarity with the teachers, the substitute tried to convince them to stay in class, Cornwell said in an interview.

“If you walk out now you’re throwing away your education,” he recalled her saying. In the front row sat a quiet girl whose name he didn’t know even then. “This little mousy girl stood up and said, ‘That’s bull—-. We’re getting the f— out of here.’ So, we all got up and left.”

Before going on strike, many of the teachers had discussed the issues with their classes, and Cornwell said he couldn’t recall a student who didn’t participate in the walkout: “There was nobody left in any classroom.”

Cornwell, now 65 and a retired university librarian who runs camps for children with diabetes, remembers the teachers’ strike as a chaotic moment in a year filled with them. That same year brought the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and riots and antiwar protests. Cornwell watched classmates barely older than him drafted to serve in Vietnam and never return home.

Florida was also not the only place where public educators were fed up. Walkouts had taken place in other cities before the statewide stance, and more would occur after it.

From New Mexico to New Jersey, they were happening in poor and wealthy communities, in cities with strong and weak union traditions.

The Florida strike is often overshadowed by one that occurred in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhoods in New York the same year, said Jody Noll, who has written about the Florida strike for his master’s degree and now doctorate for Georgia State University. But the two are distinct in many ways, including the image they present about race relations at the time, he said. Unlike the New York event, which highlighted racial tensions, Florida saw black and white teachers protest together.

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Noll said the Florida strike is also notable because even though some teachers didn’t get their jobs back, it forced the governor to negotiate. The standoff ended March 9 after the state agreed to a small increase, $10.2 million, in school aid. It also pushed the state to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees and it empowered students, Noll said. In his research, the only arrests he found were of students who had walked out in support of their teachers.

Letters in the messy handwriting of the young were among the many sent to state officials during the three-week walkout, according to documents preserved by the State Library and Archive of Florida. Other letters came from teachers, business owners and retirees. Some carried no name.

“Those who sell out to the teachers at the expense of the taxpayers will be remembered on election day,” read one from a person who signed it “one of many keeping score.”

“If teachers can get away with unionization, then what about all other city employee?” read another letter. “What about unions for firemen, policemen and all others. Each year they ‘want more’ and if their unions do not get more they strike. It would be one hell of a life for retired folks, taxes going up each year to support these greedy ones.”

On the third day of the strike, a sixth-grade student’s mother wrote Commissioner of Education Floyd Christian to tell him that schools were better equipped and didn’t charge fees where her family had recently lived — Montgomery County, Md.

“Apparently, our teachers in Fla. have real grievances I used to term ‘exaggerations,’ before living up north for a while,” she wrote. “We realize Maryland has the obvious advantage of many, many years’ experience of meeting the needs of people in every age level (and conditions are not perfect). However, we — as homeowners — want to see Florida grow population-wise, with young families as well as retirees.”

She signed her name in the style of the times, Mrs. Jack Carlson.

Christian wrote back assuring her they were working toward a solution, according to a copy of his letter in the archives. He also pointed out that Maryland had its own problems.

“Interestingly enough, at the time your letter hit my desk, there was a reporter from Montgomery County in my office, advising me of the strike they had in Montgomery County three weeks ago to get salaries raised by $500,” Christian wrote on Feb. 23, 1968.

A story about the Maryland strike shared the front page of The Washington Post on Feb. 2, 1968, with Eddie Adams’s famous photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner. The article describes the strike as the first in the Washington area and the result of stalled salary talks between the teacher’s association and the schools. School administrators had proposed a starting teacher salary of $6,250. The association wanted starting salaries set at $6,600.

The strike ended, according to another front-page article 10 days later, with teachers receiving a base salary of $6,340. The new salary was described as “the highest in the metropolitan area.”

An article buried deeper in the newspaper hinted at how well that was sitting with teachers in Arlington, Fairfax, D.C. and Prince George’s County. The headline read: “Strike Pressures Other Area Schools.”

By the time Florida’s strike was over, teachers had also taken stances in Colorado, Michigan, New York, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

By September, at the start of a new school year, the National Education Association predicted as many as 300 to 400 teacher strikes in the coming eight months, according to a New York Times article.  The head of the American Federation of Teachers went further. He said he didn’t rule out the possibility of a nationwide strike.

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