September 7th, 1976

First Black Person Elected to Statewide Office in the South Since Reconstruction

On September 7, 1976, Joseph Woodrow Hatchett was elected to a seat on the Florida Supreme Court, becoming the first black person elected to any statewide office in the South since the end of Reconstruction nearly a century before. A year earlier, in September 1975, Governor Rubin Askew appointed Judge Hatchett to a seat on the Court, making him the first black Florida Supreme Court justice in state history.

“Reconstruction” refers to a period following the Civil War, when the Republican-controlled United States Congress passed legislation granting black Americans citizenship, civil rights, and federal protection and established federally-controlled military governments in former Confederate states to oversee compliance. The inclusion of blacks in the political process angered many white Southern Democrats still invested in white supremacy. Their efforts to infringe upon blacks’ new political rights often involved extreme violence. Despite the danger of political involvement, blacks bravely took a more active role in the country’s political life than ever before, as both voters and candidates. Backed by federal forces’ presence and oversight, nine black men were elected to Congress between 1865 and 1877, and several black men served in the Florida state legislature.

When Reconstruction ended prematurely in 1877, with the removal of federal troops from the South as part of a political compromise to declare Rutherford B. Hayes winner of the contested 1876 presidential election, Southern states quickly passed laws to undo black political and social progress. This marked the start of a new era, defined by Jim Crow and widespread racial terrorism, in which blacks were economically exploited, restricted in their access to quality education and employment, and excluded from the political process through discriminatory laws and violent intimidation. The effects were immediate and long-lasting; most states in the region would not again elect a black person to state or national office for decades.

For many, the election to Florida’s highest court of Justice Hatchett, whose proud father and mother had worked as a fruit picker and domestic worker, realized the dreams of the civil rights movement, and represented a step in the direction of progress. After four years as a Florida Supreme Court justice, President Jimmy Carter appointed Hatchett to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth (later Eleventh) Circuit, where he sat until his retirement from the bench in 1999.