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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
O: This interview took place with Dr. Michael Gannon, professor of history at the
University of Florida. Dr. Gannon was active in both the civil rights movement in
the 1960s and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1970s. The purpose of the
interview is to elicit information from Dr. Gannon regarding his views and
personal experiences during those important and turbulent years. Today is April
17, 1991, and we are in Dr. Gannon's office on the campus of the University of
Good morning Dr. Gannon. I would like to thank you again for agreeing to see
me today. I wonder if you would mind telling me what your full name is, sir.
G: Michael V. Gannon.
O: What is your present position here at the University?
G: Professor of history and director of the Institute for Early Contact Period Studies.
O: Are you a native Floridian?
G: No, I am not. I was born in Oklahoma. But I went through high school in Florida.
O: When did you decide to make sunny Florida your permanent home?
O: As early as the beginning of the war, I guess, or just before it.
G: Yes. [During] my freshman year in high school my family moved from
Washington, DC, to St. Augustine.
O: Then I guess you aspired to a career in some field or another after high school.
What did you do?
G: Radio broadcasting.
O: Really? Was that what you spent most of your time on during and after the war?
G: During the war I was in high school, and after the war I was in radio broadcasting
until 1949, when I entered the seminary and studied for the priesthood. I went to
college at St. Thomas [Seminary in Bloomfield] in Hartford, Connecticut, the
Catholic University in Washington [DC], and the University of Louvain in Belgium.
Finishing that work, I came here to Gainesville and obtained a Ph.D. in history in
O: I see. Did you then remain in Gainesville after 1962?
G: No. I went to St. Augustine and became director of the Mission of Nombre de
Dios. Then in 1967 I returned to the University of Florida as a faculty member.
0: I see. In the 1960s, there was a rather strong civil rights movement, and I
understand that you felt rather strongly about equal rights for all citizens in the
days when they were not available to all. When did you see the need to become
personally active in the civil rights movement?
G: In 1963 and 1964 when there were demonstrations by black civil rights workers
in St. Augustine.
O: Did you know Dr. Austin Creel [assistant professor of religion] of the [University
G: Not at that time. I knew his name, [but] I really did not get to know him until a
little later on.
O: Did you personally take part in the demonstrations in St. Augustine?
G: No, I did not. I did my best to mediate between the groups at a certain period of
time, but I did not participate in the demonstrations as such.
O: You felt mediation was necessary. Was this between the groups and the
authorities, shall we say?
G: Well, St. Augustine had had a reasonably good biracial environment, not that the
black people had been given their rights and dignities by any means, but St.
Augustine was not a hotbed of racism. But it was singled out as an appropriate
southern community in which to make a statement on behalf of civil rights
because St. Augustine was expecting in 1965 to celebrate its quadricentennial,
its 400th anniversary. A great amount of national attention would be focused on
the city, so the black civil rights movement, understandably, chose St. Augustine
as a site for demonstrating for further granting of civil rights to the black citizens
St. Augustine provided a high-visibility location. Even though, as I said, there
had been fairly good biracial relationships existing in the city and the schools had
all been desegregated. Nonetheless, St. Augustine was an apt and appropriate
place in which to make a statement. When that statement was made, it was
made primarily by black citizens who came from outside the city, and when the
demonstrations were opposed, they were opposed by white citizens who came
into St. Augustine from outside the city. So St. Augustine became a battleground
for people from somewhere else, and I tried to do my best to mediate some of
those instances where there was a possibility of violence. I was not as effective
as I possibly could have been. It was my first modest foray into social activism.
O: And mediation. Was The Reverend Andrew Young [associate of Martin Luther
King, ambassador to the United Nations, 1977-79, mayor of Atlanta] present at
G: If he was, I never saw him.
O: I see. I also read about a fellow whose name is J. B. Stoner, a staunch
segregationist. Was he one of the outside people that you mentioned?
G: Yes, very definitely. [He was] a real racist firebrand who stood in the plaza of the
city with a Confederate flag vest and harangued the crowds to "keep the niggers
down," [to] "keep them in their place." That was typical, old, white- supremacy
racism at its quintessential worst. Stoner had a lot of people from the
countryside who were applauding his every remark. I understand he is still alive.
I do not know that for a fact, but I was told that recently. But he was one of the
major troublemakers. [He] went on to further infamy in his life and career.
O: Was A[sa]. Philip Randolph [American Labor union official, organizer, president
of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-1968] there?
G: I do not know.
O: In those days--this is 1964 ..
G: 1963 and 1964; primarily 1964.
O: Did you meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
G: No, I did not. I met very few of the principals.
O: But you met a number of local people, I suppose, who were organizers of the
G: Yes, I knew a lot of local people.
O: Who were some of those people, just for the record, that you cooperated with?
G: The person I worked most directly through was Dr. Charles Puryear, president of
Florida Memorial College, the black college on the west side of town [West St.
Augustine]. He had the greatest influence of all the black citizens in the city in
dealing with the blacks both from in town and from outside. He is the one I dealt
with primarily. On the other side, I tried to work with the mayor, Joseph Shelley,
a local physician [and mayor of St. Augustine]. But I was, in the main, ineffective
in my approaches to him.
O: Were you not effective enough at least to avoid some violence such as happened
in Jacksonville for example?
G: Well, there was some modest violence in and around St. Augustine, the principal
example being the attempt of black young people to swim at St. Augustine
beach, which had always been regarded as a "whites only" beach. A number of
white people went out--I do not know that they were from St. Augustine or
anywhere near St. Augustine--and fought with the black people in the surf to get
them off the beach. There were isolated instances of violence of that kind.
O: One of the young men involved in desegregation in those days [was] Joel
Buchanan. I talked to a few students in Dr. Proctor's class [Seminar in Oral
History at the University of Florida] the other day [about him]. If you recall, in
1963 he was the first black student to be registered in an all-white high school in
O: He mentioned that he heard Andrew Young say once that the Lord helped blacks
by giving strength and fortitude on the long road to integration, but on the other
hand this may have impeded progress because [blacks] were too patient and had
the attitude of "let us wait for the Lord to do the work, and we will sit back." Did
you find that attitude prevalent? Was it just the activists taking part in making the
G: Well, it is true that prior to the civil rights movement blacks were relatively
passive in accepting their lot. If you read the words of the hymns sung most
commonly in black churches of the period, it is clear that they expected their
redress of grievances and their restoration of full rights after death, in heaven,
across the Jordan [River]. But in the civil rights movement you need to
understand that blacks came to understand this redress of grievances and this
restoration of rights now, here on this earth.
O: Understandably so. Did you at any time find that the nearness of the University
had an impact on the community in central Florida, that is, on St. Augustine and
G: Not on St. Augustine, no. There were some individuals like Dr. Creel and Dan
Harmeling who went from Gainesville to St. Augustine to make their own
statements and support the blacks. But the University as such had no special
influence that I can recall.
O: I also wondered whether the 1964 federal election--this is now a little later in the
year, when LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson was] facing off with Barry Goldwater--
had any influence on the civil rights movement in St. Augustine.
G: Again, I do not know. I do not recall the election that well. I would say that
certainly all of the white racists in the city would have supported Goldwater.
O: I imagine.
G: But apart from that, I cannot recall any particular incidents. That is too far distant
in memory for me to recall much about those times. And as I said, I was only
marginally involved. I was never in contact with people like King or Young or J.
B. Stoner or the others.
O: You were otherwise doing your part, I am sure. As time went on, there was also
another problem that beset the country, and that was the Vietnam War that
seemed to drag on forever. I recall that toward 1968 the protest against the war
peaked, especially at the Chicago [Democratic Party] convention. Then by 1969
I understand there was a vigil held here at the University of Florida that I believe
you participated in, protesting the war itself.
G: Oh, I thought we were going to talk about civil rights. You are now going to talk
about the war?
O: If I may ask a few questions about that, because that will be the next follow-up
after civil rights, unless you had some more to add to civil rights.
G: No, I really do not have anything more. The only thing that I can say is that when
the schools were segregated in Gainesville, I was asked to go out to some of the
schools to help counsel students and help the transition be a peaceful and
positive one. I went out to Gainesville High School, and I hope that I contributed
by my presence and my actions there. That is the only other thing that I would
say about the 1960s and the role that I tried to play in civil rights. Again, I do not
know how effective I was, but I did participate to that measure. But the war is
something very different; that is a completely different subject.
O: I understand that. I wonder if I may ask you just a couple of questions about it,
because I know that as a mediator you were rather effective during the
demonstrations that took place here in 1972.
G: Well, I will say just a few [things] about that, but it is my intention to give at some
date a full accounting of the war in an oral history that is specifically devoted to
that, to the demonstrations and incidents that occurred here. I have already told
one individual who wants to interview me in depth on that that I need to go back
and get out all of my records from that period and refresh my mind on it, so I
would not want this interview to stand as my formally- recorded recollections of
those years as regards the war.
O: I fully respect that.
G: Because I am not prepared to talk about it. Having said that, I will say that yes, I
went to Vietnam in 1968 as a war correspondent, and on my return I became
involved in the anti-war movement on the basis on what I saw and experienced.
I counseled students the best I could, and I stood by them. Though I did not
encourage them in any way, I stood by them when they themselves of their own
volition opposed the war in various forms: vigils, speeches, assemblies, marches,
demonstrations, and so forth.
While there were many such minor examples of student opposition to the war,
the two principal instances in which student opposition became highly visible and,
indeed, highly dangerous, was in the spring of 1970, following the Kent State
murders and the invasion of Cambodia, and the spring of 1972, following
[President] Richard Nixon's mining of Haiphong Harbor. Those two are very
complicated events, and I did play a role in both of them by way of doing my best
to prevent violence, casualties and property damage.
O: And I am sure you had quite an impact, at least so one hears from the reports.
[Did] the demonstrators have any opponents? Were there any government
people on campus at all?
G: Just about the entire administration and the entire city of Gainesville. That is all.
O: Oh, really? That is really an impressive array. I really thought that the students
[were unopposed]. The cause really could not have been any clearer. Yet you
say that there were people on the other side.
G: There were many students on the other side, as well. It was not clear. It was
very murky. It called up a lot of passions and hostilities and fears. That is why I
call those two springs dangerous times.
But in between there was a civil rights event that dovetails with your interest here
today, and that was a very serious demonstration by black students on campus
in pursuit of what they thought was more equitable treatment by the
administration toward them as a minority. In particular, they were fighting in the
spring of 1971 for the appointment of a vice-president of minority affairs. To that
end, they occupied the president's office. The president ordered them to leave
under the trespassing laws of the University, city, and state. They refused to
leave, so they were arrested. With that, the entire black community on campus,
together with hundreds--I hesitate to say thousands, but it seemed like
thousands--of white sympathizers occupied the entire building of Tigert Hall.
O: Who was the president at that time?
G: Stephen C. O'Connell [president, University of Florida, 1968-1974]. The students
would not clear the building, and I was able to persuade the police to stay outside
and not to enter the building and cause harm to the students, thinking that we
could work out an accommodation, which we were able to do. The student
leaders and President O'Connell eventually agreed that the students would leave
the building if the president would go out on the front steps and address them.
And that is exactly what happened. It was resolved, but after much of a day,
much of an afternoon, of high tension and high drama. But fortunately it ended
peacefully, except for a number of students who were gassed and had all of the
uncomfortable effects of that experience. There were no casualties and no
O: The students who were gassed were outside the building, I take it?
G: They were inside. They had refused to leave when the rest of the students had
agreed to do so, so the police went up to the top floor and drove them out with
tear gas and arrested them. They were to have been taken downtown to be
booked, but students cut the tires of the police bus in which they were to be
transported, with the result that that action was not possible. To help relieve the
tension, I persuaded the chief of police to let the students go, which he did.
O: Were there any other occurrences that you can think of?
G: No, I cannot. That is all I can tell you about the topic for this morning.
0: I thank you for the time you spent with me this morning and the memories you
shared. Thank you very much, Dr. Gannon.
G: Fine. I am glad to have talked with you.