When you hear the crack of a baseball bat at spring training, cheer on the children in your life in their games, or enjoy a baseball game at any level of play, take a moment to think abut Fred Flowers.
You’ll not find his name in the Baseball Hall of Fame. You will find a statue of him, though, baseball bat in hand. on the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee.
In the statue, Flowers in wearing his baseball uniform. He was the first African American student to wear an official team uniform in any sport for the Florida State Seminoles.
Flowers could have made other choices. He played football in high school, and was a standout in baseball. He was scouted by pro teams. His family history included many graduates of Florida A&M University right in his hometown of Tallahassee.
Flowers chose to stay in his hometown, but he made another choice: he went to Florida State.
It was 1965.
Struggles for civil rights and news of racial division and violence filled newspapers, airwaves, and conversation. Just three years earlier, Maxwell Courtney had become the first African American to receive an undergraduate degree from FSU.
It had been just two years since the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech. Two years since Birmingham Sunday, when four young girls preparing for Sunday services were killed by a bomb planted in their church.
A little over a year earlier, President Lyndon B Johnson had signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, preventing employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin.
Barely six months before Flowers began his freshman year at FSU, 600 people, among them Florida’s own former governor Leroy Collins, marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest voter suppression. Beatings and brutal attacks ensued. The marchers persisted, finally bringing their concerns to Alabama’s state capitol in Montgomery on the third attempt.
Montgomery is less than a four hour drive northwest of Tallahassee. In 1965, these were not distant events.
Flowers enrolled at FSU, where he became one of just ten black undergraduate students. The welcome wasn’t exactly warm. Recalling that each of the students was there because of having an outstanding academic record, Flowers told the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper “We were there on a mission. In my case, I had a two part mission. I had the scholar aspect along with the athletic aspect.”
Flowers met both. He made the varsity baseball team as a walk on. Though he got along well with his teammates on the squad, fans in the stands were a different matter. Flowers faced taunts and racial slurs as he played.
Flowers met his athletic mission by becoming the first black athlete to wear an FSU varsity uniform. He met his academic one, too, earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and and a master’s in urban and regional planning from FSU. Flowers went on the earn a law degree from the University of Florida. He has been practicing law in Tallahassee since the 1980s.
Unsurprisingly. perhaps. many of his cases over the years have had to do with civil rights.
In addition to his law practice, one of the things Fred Flowers is working on these days is the development of the Florida State University Civil Rights Institute. To be housed in the university’s Strozier Library, the institute will take advantage of and offer broader access to the already existing civil rights materials at the library, and is also expected to create publications, host speakers, create an online presence, and take other initiatives. Its mission, drawing on the resources and support of many university departments and organizations, is the study of civil rights in America and the promotion of social change.
Fred’s sister Doby Lee Flowers was FSU’s first African American homecoming queen. Her statue, in full 1970s homecoming dress. stands with that of her brother and Maxwell Courtney. Speaking at an event to launch the Civil Rights Institute, she said: “Things can change, and things do change when people are change agents for that which is good.”
Three people who took courage in their hands, who acted with peace and for justice in a difficult and dangerous time, are remembered in portraits created by sculptor Sandy Proctor in the Integration Statue on the campus of Florida State University. Maxwell Courtney carries his books, Doby Lee Flowers wears the head dress with which she was crowned, and Fred Flowers holds his baseball bat.
The statues of the three stand in a circle facing outward. They are reminders of the living presence of not so distant history, of courage, and of the possibility of change.
Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.
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