Escambia High School riots
The Escambia High School riots were racially motivated nonviolent and violent demonstrations which occurred in varying forms between 1972 and 1977 at the then-newly desegregated Escambia High School. The centerpiece riot, which received the most publicity and was the most violent demonstration, occurred on February 5, 1976.
Background & early violence
Escambia High School, formerly an all-white school, was forcibly desegregated in 1969. In the fall of 1972, black students rioted at a home football game for their team, whose mascot was a "Rebel," modelled in appearance after the Colonel Reb of the University of Mississippi. The school band played the official school song, "Dixie," and it was from there that the violence ensued.
Continuing until the end of the 1972–73 academic year, blacks and other students protested the mascot, school song and use of the Confederate Flag, which was flown at school events and games, on the grounds that the imagery the items brought up were insensitive to black people. On July 24, 1973, a United States District Court ruling deemed all of the aforementioned symbols as "racially irritating" and barred their use at the school level (Augustus v. School Board of Escambia County, 361 F. Supp. 383, 1973). At the beginning of the next school year, the name "Raiders" was picked to be the new name for all of Escambia High's athletic teams.
Throughout 1974, the Escambia County School District appealed the decision, and on January 25, 1975, the United States Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school board, overturning the injunction and decreeing that the school board should be in charge of the matter.
Election & main riot
On February 4, 1976, an impromptu school election was held in which students were allowed to vote to either keep the name as "Raiders" or change the name back to "Rebels." The students who preferred "Rebels" failed to secure a supermajority needed to win the ballot. White students complained the vote was "unfair" because there had not been enough advance notice. The vote was held on senior skip day, resulting in a large number of students being absent from school that day for the vote.
The next day, hundreds of white students gathered outside the school and attempted to hoist a Confederate flag on the flagpole. After black students in the school lobby saw the display, a riot erupted. In the ensuing violence, which lasted for four hours, around 30 students were injured and four were shot, including football team quarterback Keith Hughes.
The school suffered extensive damage from the event, with nearly a hundred windows smashed, as well as trophy cases, clocks, water fountains and a water pipe that flooded the building's north wing. Principal Chris Banakas estimated that three-quarters of the 2,523 students who attended Escambia High were involved in the riot. "We ended up with a bunch of whites outside throwing rocks and breaking windows, and a bunch of blacks inside breaking windows," he said.
Several non-student adults were arrested at the scene by Escambia Sheriff's deputies. One 18-year-old student and three juveniles were also arrested, and 17 others detained. Many of the students involved later faced disciplinary actions.
State Representative R. W. "Smokey" Peaden arrived at the school during the riot and promised the white students he would demand a new vote on the nickname. "If you want our help, act as adults," he said. "If you act as you've acted this morning, you're liable to not get any help at all." Escambia County Superintendent J. E. Hall cancelled Friday's classes at the school.
The next week, attendance at the school dropped dramatically, especially among black students. There were reports of white students jeering at blacks on the nearly empty buses, and a white youth was found loitering near the school with a length of chain, but no incidents of violence occurred.
In the weeks that followed, crosses were burned on many school board members' yards, with one member, who was black, specifically targeted with a gunshot which went through his window. A human relations board member as well as a state legislator also had their homes torched. After all the retaliatory violence both at the school and in the community, members from the Florida Highway Patrol and numerous local law enforcement agencies combined to patrol the school until the end of the year. While waiting for a final determination from the courts and the school board; the student body selected the nickname "Patriots" to be used at school sponsored events during the 1976–77 academic year. In the spring of 1977, after hearing the courts final decision that "Rebels" was not to be reinstated the students chose "Gators" as the permanent nickname. On July 13, 1977 the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) petitioned the Escambia County School Board to hold a meeting at Escambia High School. The Escambia High School Student Body president, John Davis, successfully argued against the petition before the board. The board voted 5-1 against the petition.
- "State: A dubious demise." St. Petersburg Times, January 23, 2005.
- "Racial Animosity Turns to Violence in Pensacola, Fla., on Issue of Calling High School Teams 'Rebels.'" New York Times, March 7, 1976.
- Augustus v. School Board of Escambia County, 507 F.2d 152, 1975
- Mary Barrineau. "Escambia High Closed After 30 Hurt in Nickname Melee." Pensacola Journal, February 6, 1976.
Link title5. King, Wayne (1976-03-07). "Racial Animosity Turns to Violence in Pensacola, Fla., on Issue of Calling High School Teams 'Rebels'". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-05.
Link title6. Pensacola News Journal article dated July 14, 1977. "Board turns down Klan meeting plea" by Journal Staff writer Marry Barrineau