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How fitting it is that the renaming of the downtown Alachua County criminal courthouse in honor of the late U.S. District Judge Stephan Mickle comes amid celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Both were African-American men who distinguished themselves as trailblazers with courage, competency and conviction.
King, as drum major of the civil rights movement, laid the groundwork for the entry of Mickle and millions of other Black people into the American mainstream during the 1960s and ‘70s — a feat unmatched at the time since Reconstruction.
“Keep moving. Let nothing slow you up. Move on with dignity and honor and respectability.”
— MLK, 1957
Mickle seemed to hear King loud and clear.
Anyone who has ever watched 1963 footage of Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block entry of Black students, or of Gov. Ross Barnett in 1962 denying James Meredith admission to the University of Mississippi, knows Mickle no doubt met resistance as one of seven Black students to integrate the University of Florida in 1965.
The racism at UF wasn’t as blatant as it was in Mississippi or Alabama. Mickle’s admission to UF didn’t command nearly as much attention from leading network anchormen of that era such as Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. Florida Gov. Farris Bryant, an ardent segregationist, saw to that. He ordered the presence of Mickle and six other Black students at UF kept low-key.
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Mickle received the cold-shoulder treatment on his way to becoming the first African-American UF graduate in 1965, just a few months after the historic Selma march. Still he kept it moving, just as King exhorted years earlier.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
— MLK, 1957
In his mild and deliberate manner, Mickle broke through racial barriers to become the second Black student to graduate from UF’s law school, the first African-American lawyer in Alachua County and the first Black county judge, area circuit judge and federal district judge from this region.
“Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
Looking at Mickle’s lifetime of accomplishments, he was well educated by King’s standards. Moreover, he was highly respected by people in the legal community as well as by friends and neighbors.
Leanetta McNealy, immediate past chair of the Alachua County School Board, was a longtime neighbor of Mickle and his family on 12th Avenue in east Gainesville. She fondly recalls the many neighborhood gatherings Mickle helped organize as well as the influence he had on neighborhood kids.
“He was a well-rounded, good-natured individual,” said McNealy, who was sworn into her first term in office by Mickle in 2012. “He adopted our kids around the neighborhood, and they grew up knowing him as a giant role model.”
Now with Mickle’s name stretched across the front of the courthouse, let’s hope that jurists and lawyers there as well as the community in general will be reminded of the life he lived and his commitment to justice for all.
Sadly, neither King nor Mickle saw during their lifetimes the kind of blind justice that‘s represented in law books. A read, for instance, of Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, ”Just Mercy” is just one of many well- documented sources that disabuse any such notion.
I never met Stephan Mickle, but from all that I’ve learned about him, no doubt he’d concur with these words from King: “Change does not roll in on the wheel of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle.”
Both men should inspire us.
James F. Lawrence is executive director of Gainesville For All. Send inquiries to email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: James Lawrence: Mickle, King distinguished themselves as trailblazers