When Dr. Susan A. MacManus set out a decade ago to write “Florida’s Minority Trailblazers,” she wanted to recognize the men and women who changed the face of Florida’s government.
Her book does just that.
She recounts the personal stories of the first minority men and women elected or appointed to state legislative, executive and judicial offices, and to the U.S. Congress since the 1960s.
Through personal interviews, MacManus discovered what motivated them to seek political office.
Her book provides a wealth of information about how they ran their campaigns, what kinds of discrimination they encountered, what the experience meant to them and what advice they would offer aspiring politicians.
One of the politicians profiled is Bob Martinez, a former mayor of Tampa, who became Florida’s first Hispanic governor.
MacManus said she decided to write the book because she believes it was important to preserve these stories as part of Florida’s political history.
“It’s very easy to take for granted what we have at present, but it’s also important to know how we got to this point, and who took risks and made sacrifices for the public good,” MacManus said, during a recent interview in her Land O’ Lakes home.
Richard E. Foglesong, author of “Immigrant Prince: Mel Martinez and the American Dream,” wrote that MacManus’ book “Saves a piece of Florida’s political history by narrating the personal stories of the state’s ‘minority trailblazers’ from the Civil Rights Movement to the present day.”
In essence, MacManus said she wanted to write a book that chronicled real stories about real people.
“The whole purpose was to show, through people, the growing diversity of Florida, both racially and ethnically, as well as politically through biographies and in-person accounts,” she said.
In the forward of the book, David R. Colburn, writes “There is perhaps no recent book that reminds readers of the state’s rich political and diverse culture more than “Florida’s Minority Trailblazers,” by Susan MacManus.
“She emphasizes that the story of Florida is more than just about new beginnings, population growth, and economic opportunity; it is also about the struggle for civil rights, equal justice, opportunity for all Floridians, and political background,” Colburn wrote.
The volume will come in handy for historians and journalists, and college professors, too, said MacManus, who is a distinguished professor at the University of South Florida.
“There were literally no materials that were readily available for teaching that would be able to personalize the changing faces of our elected officials, in state politics, particularly,” she said.
The book looks at factors that forced the South to change laws and processes that discriminated against persons of color, and notes the importance of single-member districts, redistricting and term limits in opening up the political arena to minority candidates.
MacManus said her approach to the book was influenced by the work she did with her mother,
the late Elizabeth Riegler MacManus, on local history books.
She and her mother are co-authors of “Citrus, Sawmills, Critters & Crackers,” and “Going, Going, Almost Gone …” which trace the history of Lutz and Land O’ Lakes.
Those books stemmed from scores of taped interviews that MacManus’ mother conducted with area old-timers who had deep roots in the settlements north of Tampa.
The interviews were supplemented with property records, advertisements, old brochures, photographs, documents and anything else that would help tell the community’s story.
Like her mother, MacManus thought it important to include personal stories, along with hard facts.
Arranging the interviews was a challenge.
“These are very busy, very prominent people,” she said.
Gaining the trust of the potential interview subject was essential, too.
In some cases, MacManus was seeking meetings with people who didn’t know her. So, she turned to people who do, to help her secure those interviews.
“It took time to get to them,” she said. “But, once I got the interviews, they were very gracious.”
As she talked with people from diverse backgrounds, some common themes emerged, MacManus said.
“One of the questions I asked was: ‘What kind of roadblocks did you experience?
“And, every one of them had something they could mention. None of these trailblazers had it easy.
“On the other hand, when I asked, ‘Who helped you along the way?’ Everyone had a cheerleader and some mentors.”
When she asked what sort of advice they would offer future politicians, a common refrain was: “Make sure this is something you and your family want to do. It is very, very demanding and draining to go into public office.”
In her work, MacManus said she tries to encourage students to consider becoming public servants.
But, she said there have been times over the years that she has worried that fewer people would be willing to run for office.
She routinely asks students if they have political ambitions.
“For a long time, I didn’t see but one or two hands out of 50,” she said. Recently, though, she’s been encouraged: “Now, I see 10 or 12.”
Of those who are interested, she said, “I think they think they can be change agents.”
MacManus also has noticed in the data that the number of people with No Party Affiliation is increasing.
She attributes that to a rise in the number of younger people who are alienated by the traditional two-party system.
“It’ll be interesting to see what they do with politics,” MacManus said. “It is a party-dominated political system, and it’s going to be hard to break that.”
Published August 30, 2017