Former St. Petersburg Times columnist and editorial writer Bill Maxwell appeared on WMNF WaveMakers with Janet & Tom on Tuesday (Nov. 14) to discuss a lifetime of speaking truth to power.
Maxwell, who retired from the Times in 2019 after 25 years, published a collection of his columns last year that recently won a Silver medal in the Florida book awards. He continues to write for Forum, the magazine of the Florida Humanities. One article this summer recounted his experiences participating in the civil rights movement in St. Augustine in 1964, which played a big part in the passage of the Civil Rights Act that year.
He was recruited to help in St. Augustine while in college because he had experience in protesting segregated beaches in Fort Lauderdale. “It was dangerous because many of the cops in St. Augustine were Klansmen so it was a very dangerous place to work. You’re looking at someone who is supposedly there to help you but in fact he’s there to hurt you or even kill you.” He registered voters and organized civil rights rallies. Martin Luther King called St. Augustine the most racist place he’d ever been, Maxwell recalls.
Maxwell also discussed his experiences with the notorious Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, the subject of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Devil in the Grove.
Maxwell had family in Lake County who had been beaten by McCall. “He hated black people,” Maxwell said. “He made a point of keeping us in line…We were stopped one day by Willis and he actually slapped one of the people working with me, a white male from New York and he threatened to kill us because we were registering people to work in Tavares and he told us to never come back again to Lake County and if we did it would be the last thing we did on this side of the ground.”
Maxwell grew up in a family of migrant farm workers, an experience that gave him a love for the environment. He even tried to be a national park ranger but was blocked because of the color of his skin. He got to fulfill that dream after retiring from the Times when he became an artist-in-residence and volunteer in the Florida Everglades.
“Some of the worst environmental problems are in the black communities,” Maxwell says. “I knew as a child that the environment was everything….There is environmental racism in America. Anyone who denies it is a liar.”