A Triumph for Democracy
On April 17, 2012, the Cunningham Bar Association commemorated a watershed event for democracy. Fifty years prior, F. Malcolm Cunningham Sr. became the first Negro elected to the City Council of Riviera Beach.
Covering the election for the Palm Beach Post- Times, Jack Thompson heralded Cunningham’s victory as unprecedented as none of the city officials “. . . knew of any city in Florida or the entire South which had elected a Negro to a legislative position” since Reconstruction. By a slim margin of 41 votes in the run-off election, Cunningham defeated the incumbent who, for 13 years had held office longer than any other council member and had served as the council’s chairman.
To fully comprehend the significance of Cunningham’s victory, we must remember that a legalized system of discrimination known as Jim Crow existed in America from the 1880’s to the 1960’s. The rights and privileges of blacks as citizens were severely limited or often denied. Laws in the Southern states, and social practices in other parts of the country, kept the races apart. The Jim Crow Era was a time when blacks and whites could not share the same beaches, swimming pools, jail cells or juvenile detention facilities. They could not ride in the same elevators or taxis or sit next to each other on trains or buses or even in courtrooms or movie theatres. Laws prohibited blacks and whites from intermarrying or being buried in the same cemeteries. In West Palm Beach, a city ordinance forced blacks to live and own their businesses in a well -defined boundary.
Viewing Cunningham’s election through the lens of history, it is clear that his 1962 victory occurred before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed employment discrimination as well as discrimination by hotels, restaurants and other public establishments. His victory occurred before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which outlawed discriminatory housing practices.
Cunningham’s election signaled a destruction of racial barriers. During the election, more than 1000 voters in the negro Precinct 3A who lived west of the dividing Florida East Coast railroad tracks cast votes for Cunningham at the Pure Oil Service Station on Old Dixie Highway. Interestingly, another 299 voters in the predominately white Precinct 3, voted for Cunningham at City Hall. Therefore, it was monumental that Cunningham was elected by a diverse group of voters- both blacks and whites who believed that the 35-year old attorney had a genuine interest in their city and the knowledge and skill necessary to bring about positive change.
Cunningham’s story is one of perseverance. The son of a farmer and grocer from Plant City, Florida, his parents instilled in him that education was the ticket to success. Determined to advance the rights of citizens, Cunningham enrolled in Howard University as an undergraduate and continued, completing law school in 1953. Attending law school out of state was necessary as blacks were not permitted to enroll in Florida’s public law schools in the 1950s. With his law degree in hand, Cunningham moved to Palm Beach County in 1953. While his initial bid to become a Riviera Beach City Councilman was unsuccessful in 1956, he later was re-elected twice as councilman and served on the City Council from 1962-1967. During his tenure, he rose to the position of Vice Chairman and worked hard for all residents. His accomplishments include establishing a paid Fire Department, improving the City’s Water and Sewer System, erecting recreational buildings and implementing a beach development program.
Today, we honor him not with our words, but with action. This Bar Association has pledged and continues to educate the public about the importance of registering and voting in local, state and national elections. Members are joining forces with the Florida Bar’s public education program to educate voters about the judicial merit retention system.
To F. Malcolm Cunningham, Sr. we thank you for your pioneering efforts, and we pledge to continue to promote the rights of all citizens.