October 22, 2014

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Icon: Joseph Woodrow Hatchett

Former Florida Supreme Court justice; chief judge 11th Circuit of Appeals; judge 5th Circuit Court of Appeals; U.S. magistrate; civil rights lawyer, current chairman of Akerman Senterfitt appellate practice group, age 76.

Amy Keller | 5/1/2008

Listen to Amy Keller's interview of Joseph Hatchett here.
Joseph Woodrow Hatchett
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
» My mother was a maid. My father was a fruit picker, and I had three brothers and one sister — all older. Of that number, three had gone to college before I came to college.

» I grew up (in Clearwater) knowing that downtown I should not go to a bathroom, I should not sit on a bench in a downtown area, that on a bus I should sit in the last row. The books from my elementary school had been used at the white school before they came over to our school. So I saw segregation at its barest and its worst.

» I had a civics teacher when I was about eighth grade that said America is going to be changed by the law and the Constitution and by people bringing cases and finally having a court willing to say that the Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional, and I thought, ‘Well that’s something I’d like to do — and so one day I’m going to go to law school.’

» I came here to Tallahassee to A&M University and played in the band here at Florida A&M. Got a degree in political science and at the same time became a second lieutenant in the United States Army due to completion of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

» I was in Germany in ’55 and ’56. And American forces were still occupying forces. It was very good. No. 1, there was no segregation, no discrimination. It was the first time that I had been to a country where those two things did not prevail.

» For my first seven years in practice in Daytona Beach I primarily did civil rights law. It was my job to teach the protesters how to protest properly — what they could do, what they could not do, how they should conduct themselves when arrested and the sort of mundane part of the movement. I then started bringing civil cases against the city, the city facilities, restaurants, golf courses, swimming pools, employment ... until there was a lawsuit on everything.

» You don’t make very much money as a civil rights lawyer, but that didn’t matter. I made enough to support a family, and that was all I cared about it. Someone collected checks from people and put them in an envelope and gave them to me, and I put them in my bank account. There’s a check I wish I had kept. There was a check written directly to me from Sammy Davis Jr.

» I drove back and forth from St. Augustine, and one night I had to get the highway patrol to escort me out of St. Augustine because I was being followed by Klansmen.

» There had never been an assistant U.S. Attorney (who was) black. There had never been anyone to stand before a jury who was black in the South and say, ‘I represent the people of the United States,’ and I was the government’s lawyer in the deep South, and that was worth something.

» Gov. Askew decided that he was going to have justices of the Florida Supreme Court appointed from a list of persons who’d been through a commission and recommended to him. So he set up a commission ... and any lawyer or judge could apply. At the time I was a United States magistrate in
Jacksonville, and I thought, well, this would be a good thing to apply for.

» The most historic part of it was my election. I was appointed in 1975, and under the Constitution of Florida ... I had to run for the office at the next general election. ... I had never run for anything except class president in high school. So that scared me half to death, but I had to do it. ... And no black person had ever been elected statewide to office and I knew that. People remind me, that even until today, no black person has ever won a statewide contested election in the state of Florida. That’s pretty bad, but that is the record.

» I’m a ham radio operator. I have my own ham radio station. So I sit in the dark and talk to people all over the United States.

» I never met him (Martin Luther King Jr.) face to face. I had the opportunity to. But you have to understand, when you’re engaged in something like that, you don’t think about history. Dr. King was doing this, but there were people all over the South doing the very same thing.

» I’m a sports fan — primarily football.

» Diversity is good for business. It’s a global economy. Everything is diverse, and you’re not going to represent major corporations having an all white male law firm. When there are women sitting as CEOs and board members and blacks as CEOs and board members and you’re out seeking to get that business, you’re simply not going to get it.

» When it’s not football season, I do a lot of fishing — primarily saltwater fishing. I don’t have a boat anymore.

» We’ve got Hillary Clinton running for president, and you have to remember it was 1920 before women even got the right to vote in this country. In fact, black men had the right to vote in this country before black women, and there she is running for president with her opponent being a black man. That’s almost unbelievable if you started where I started from.

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