This is the second of a two-part article based on an extensive interview with former mayor Don Jones. Don Jones was mayor during a time of intense infrastructure improvement, and a watershed period for St. Petersburg’s civil rights history.
Upon his election as mayor in 1967, Don Jones announced three goals: the creation of small parks in needy areas of the city; transfer of Mound Park Hospital (now Bayfront) from city operation to a non-profit corporation; and increasing wages for city employees. During his first year in office, the first two goals were achieved. But in the midst of these progressive steps, a major city crisis was soon to erupt and it had to do with Mayor Jones’ third goal, adequate wages for city employees.
City manager Lynn Andrews put into effect a new program which reduced pay for sanitation workers from $101.40 for six days work to $73 for five days work. The new program was initially presented as a month-long trial, after which savings realized would be shared with the workers. This did not happen. On May 6, 1968, sanitation workers – all but one of whom were African Americans – went on strike. Attorney Jim Sanderlin (later judge) represented the strikers. He and strike leader Joe Savage negotiated for a 25¢ an hour increase. Andrews countered with 5¢, and offered to rescind the new pay plan and revert to the previous plan. The strikers voted to hold out for a twenty-cent-an-hour increase.
On May 7, Andrews responded by refusing to negotiate further and fired 52 workers, soon to be followed by the firing of another 150 workers on May 9. Over the course of the next month, several unexplained fires occurred around the city. While the council supported the city manager’s failure to follow through on the new pay plan as promised and the subsequent firing of striking sanitation workers, Mayor Jones did not. While he did not support the illegal strike as a way to resolve the dispute, and believed “the problem was on both sides,” he stated at the time that the real trouble started with a “publically made commitment of a pay raise that was never followed through.” On May 17, he openly criticized the city manager and charged the manager and the council with “sowing the seeds for the present St. Petersburg garbage crisis.” On June 7, the Times published an editorial entitled “Empty Victory.” They wrote that race relations in the city had suffered a “severe blow” because of the manager’s actions, and that “with the exception of Mayor Jones, the City Council’s performance during the deterioration has been ostrich-like.” The Times charged that Andrews planned to use the strike “to correct previous hiring mistakes” in the sanitation department, and “to break up all organized efforts to improve communications in the department.” Mayor Jones refused to endorse a public letter signed by all councilmen backing the manager. On May 23, attorney Ike Williams, president of the NAACP, came to the support of the strikers by calling for a “selective buying” campaign – a boycott of white-owned businesses.
Don recalls, “Lynn Andrews was one of the best infrastructure managers in the world. But he had blind spots when it came to human relations in the employment area. Things began to fester, and relationships on the city council changed from very cordial to name-calling, and I was vilified. The city manager realized that I was very much opposed to some of the things that he was doing, and he isolated me from the city council.” The strike occurred shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and King’s brother, Alfred Daniel (A. D.) King, later came to help with the strike in St. Petersburg. He participated in a march in late June and also had separate meetings with Andrews and Mayor Jones. Andrews received him coldly, whereas Mayor Jones received him cordially. “It seems the city manager hasn’t the concern expressed by the mayor,” King said.
On June 7, 1968, the first of some 40 marches took place starting on 22nd Street near Jordan School and ending at City Hall. The first march was a protest of sanitation worker pay and worker firings, but also a tribute to Robert F. Kennedy who also had been assassinated just two days before. Some 300 people participated in the march. Mayor Jones received the marchers on the steps of city hall and offered a prayer, “There can be no fellowship with God that is not based on the brotherhood of man… help us to truly ensure a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
“There were a lot of meetings that I was not invited to, including a couple where the manager met with the entire city council without me as mayor. There was one meeting in July. The strikers had been applying for permits to march on city hall. The city manager held a meeting to discuss the permits, during the course of which he said, ‘I am going to grant the permit, but they are not going to get to city hall.’ He said ‘we are going to have all our police out there in riot gear and there will be some strategically placed officers in various locations and on roof tops.’ He said ‘we are going to have’ what the city attorney called in that meeting ‘a controlled confrontation.’ I stood up and said, ‘has anybody decided how many people will be killed or injured before this is counted as a success?’ I then stormed across the room. I yanked open the door. Times newspaper reporter Paul Schnitt, who had been trying to listen on the other side of the door, literally fell into the room. Needless to say, when the next march was held, the police were not in their full riot gear, and they were not on roof tops, and the march proceeded to city hall. I believe that was the turning point. Looking back, that was the crucial day.”
On August 15, 1968, the city council passed an ordinance against impeding public travel on streets and sidewalks. The strikers had begun using sidewalks for marches rather than obtaining permits for marches on the streets. On August 17, civil violence erupted in what is now called the Midtown area. Fires were set resulting in an estimated half million dollars in property damage and stores were looted. A few people were injured but no one died. The strike leadership denounced the violence. Some 350 National Guardsmen were activated to support local police. Later The Rev. Enoch Davis, minister of Bethel Community Baptist Church and a civil rights leader declared, “the burnings and lootings were among the most devastating experiences ever to take place” in the city.Approximately two months prior to this civil violence a group of ‘Concerned Clergy’ met with the city council to try to mediate the crisis. One issue raised was offensive language still remaining in the city charter calling for residential segregation and the holding of all-white primary elections. The council agreed to rescind those provisions. Also, a few days prior to the violence, Mayor Don Jones initiated the Community Alliance in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce. The Community Alliance was a bi-racial organization whose mission was to address poor job opportunities for blacks, renovate slum housing, and expand and improve educational opportunities. But these efforts came too late to prevent violence, although the Alliance was to prove its usefulness in healing the community after the violence, and in later years.
On August 30, after 116 days, the strike was finally settled after great personal sacrifice by the workers involved and their families. Sanitation workers who had been fired and wished to return to their jobs were rehired. The new pay and work plan was rescinded. Sanitation collectors soon received an eight-cent-an-hour pay raise. During the strike, Mayor Jones observed, “We don’t just stop with law and order. There is freedom and justice, and they are all intertwined and inseparable.”
Following the strike, Mayor Jones recalls, “I was a very disturbed and frustrated person. I had found out that the mayor has no power. He has the microphone. But I also think I have come to realize – and this is the first time I have ever been interviewed on this subject – but I think that maybe my success was what I prevented from happening, and I find some solace in that.”
“I was pretty well burned out. There were threats on my life, none of which I took very seriously. I finished out my term as mayor, including hand recruiting my successor. I found the guy that reflected my viewpoints and got him to run. Three of the council members were up for reelection in the next election, and two were defeated. The others left at the end of their terms, or were defeated in the next go-around. Within one complete cycle, every one of those who had fought against everything I had fought for were gone. One of those elected to the new council was C. Bette Wimbish, the first African American to serve.”
“To this day I think the community as a whole was far more progressive in the 1960s than was its elected leadership. The white community never engaged in any mass protest against the strike. There were people I consulted with who were a great help to me at the time, such as the Rev. Enoch Davis, a black civil rights leader. He was a bridge builder between people. Another member of the black community that I relied on was police officer Freddie Crawford. He opened my eyes to segregation in the police department at that time. He was a very stabilizing influence. I also discussed a lot about what was going on with J. Wallace Hamilton, my pastor at Pasadena Community Church. I think that my conversations with people like Freddie Crawford, Jim Sanderlin, J. Wallace Hamilton, and others helped to build that framework of reason.”
“I had a philosophy through all this. I obviously did not have the votes on council to deal with the situation as I really wished to, so I had to act in such a manner as to maintain a framework of reason, because sooner or later everybody has got to come back to the framework of reason. But maintaining that framework of reason resulted in me doing things that were a lot more passive than what I was inclined to do. For example, I was told that if I went to the police department, I would be arrested because only the city manager could give direction to the department. I had considered that maybe I could focus some positive attention on matters if I got myself arrested, but I decided that was not in the best interest of the community. The best interest of the community was to try to maintain at least a framework of reason, and to have at least some limited conversations going on and that’s what happened. Bad things did happen, but they could have been a lot worse.”
After the strike was settled, Mayor Jones stated that the strike allowed St. Petersburg to “grow up and become a part of the twentieth century and part of the United States.” Reflecting on his earlier statement, Mayor Jones says, “While we weren’t really part of what America stood for in the mid-’60s; America itself did not measure up to its own standards. It took us a long, long time, but fortunately we got it straight. Thank goodness.”
As his career came to a close, the Times saluted Don as being a good mayor. “He stood courageously for compassion and understanding at a time when that was not always politically popular.” While Don did not run again for mayor, his turbulent time in office was not the end of his political career. In the 1970s, after three county commissioners were convicted of bribery, he successfully ran for the county commission and served as commission chair. In the 1990s, he and former mayor Randy Wedding teamed up to successfully advocate for replacing city manager government with the current ‘strong mayor’ government, wherein the mayor has the power to run the city rather than a manager. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of his election as mayor. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Don Jones will surely go down in our history as one of the city’s great mayors. He withstood incredible peer pressure and rose far above the conventional beliefs of his time. While the strikers themselves deserve great credit for “helping St. Petersburg become a part of the twentieth century,” Mayor Jones also played a significant, perhaps even essential, part in that achievement.
On a personal note Mayor Jones reflects, “I have been very blessed to have been a part of this community, and to have my family. You can’t get through things like what I went through without a wonderful, supportive wife and family. And I really do think Mary was the best First Lady the city ever had!” Don and Mary Jones have been married for 69 years.