By Shianne Salazar
Few Floridians are aware that the establishment of Americans’ Miranda Rights was set in motion by a 1933 Pompano Beach case where violently coerced confessions almost led to the execution of four Black boys.
Now, on the 83rd anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision to overturn their convictions, laying the foundation for the “right to remain silent,” a comprehensive new exhibition in South Florida is looking to set that record straight.
The case was Chambers v. Florida and served as Thurgood Marshall’s first Supreme Court trial.
Fort Lauderdale’s Old Dillard Museum, an education center at a historical landmark that used to house the city’s first school for African Americans, is hosting an exhibit presented by the TJ Reddick Bar Association.
We now know that you can’t beat a confession … out of someone. So, we still use this law to this day, it’s just that most people don’t understand the basis of this law. Tia Gibbs, law professor and curator of the exhibit
Tia Gibbs, an attorney and law professor at Florida State University, curated the exhibition, titled “Chambers v. Florida”. She describes the case as a “15-year obsession,” collecting over 2000 documents, news clippings and photographs, some of which are presented in the museum.
“I went to high school at [Blanche] Ely, which is in Pompano Beach, Florida. I had never heard of this case,” Gibbs told the audience at the unveiling of the exhibit. “What inspires me is that there’s so many young people that don’t know our history — especially my law students. I have students that are studying to take the bar right now that were unaware of this case.”
Tragedy and misfortune struck after a Pompano Beach baseball game in 1933. A white fisherman was murdered resulting in a public upheaval. Pressured to make arrests, the Broward County Sheriff’s Department responded by conducting a dragnet – a grouping of 25 Black men of various ages.
The suspects were detained, beaten, deprived of food and denied legal counsel for a week. Eventually, the four youngest detainees gave coerced confessions. After a three-day trial, the boys were sentenced to an execution that was set to occur three months later.
Jacksonville attorney S.D. McGill learnt of the case and began submitting pleas alongside Thurgood Marshall. After nine years the case was brought to the Supreme Court. The defendants were soon released in an unprecedented verdict.
It was the first in a number of major state and federal convictions that were overturned in the courts, paving the way for what would become the Miranda warning, the right to remain silent, in 1966. Many of the torturous tactics exhibited by the arresting officers such as forced solitude and starvation were not protected by law until Miranda v. Arizona.
“We now know that you can’t beat a confession or what we call a coerce, a confession out of someone,” Gibbs explains. “So we still use this law to this day, it’s just that most people don’t understand the basis of this law.”
Knowing history so it does not repeat itself
Gibbs says that the intention behind the exhibit is to get the next generation of “social engineers” and attorneys to know their history so that it does not get repeated. Her commitment to uncovering Florida’s legal truths has inspired her to begin co-authoring a book on the trial.
Dr. Tameka Hobbs, regional manager of the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, referenced the case in her book Democracy Abroad Lynching at Home, Racial Violence in Florida.
I think examining [this] case really does help for people who don’t understand the tension sometimes that exists between law enforcement institutions and the Black community, Dr Tameka Hobbs, author.
The book covered the lynching of Cellos Harrison – a Black man from Jackson County who was found not guilty of murder on account of a coerced confession in 1943.
“Based on that [Chambers v. Florida] 1940 decision, the Florida Supreme Court was sensitive to the fact that Cellos Harrison had been forced to confess, and they vacated the decision against him,” Dr Hobbs said. White residents of Marianna, Florida were unhappy with the overturned decision and lynched Harrison soon after the ruling.
“I think examining the Chambers case really does help for people who don’t understand the tension sometimes that exists between law enforcement institutions and the Black community,” she shares.
“In this exhibition, you have an opportunity to understand more about that history. I’m a big advocate of the fact that you can’t create an anti-racist future unless you understand the racism of the past.”
Local historian and the museum’s community liaison Emmanuel George has committed his work to revealing the seemingly hidden histories of Black Broward County.
“Preserving history is important, and we just need to get more young Black people into preserving their history,” he explains. He quotes a recent survey on Zippia that says Black historians are only 5.3% of the archivist population.
This is set to be the first of an annual showing of landmark Black cases to be featured at the Museum in collaboration with the TJ Reddick Bar Association for Black History Month.
The exhibit on the Chambers case will be up at the Old Dillard, located on 1019 NW 4th Street, until March 10th.
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