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In celebration of a barrier breaker

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In 1949, an educator applied to the University of Florida Law School and was turned down. The applicant, Virgil Hawkins, was black. The law school and the court system in Florida were white and racist. The application began a nine-year fight going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled for Hawkins.

That landmark fight will be celebrated as part of Black History Month in a special program at 7 p.m. Saturday in Branscomb Auditorium on the campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

Hawkins, a former faculty member of Bethune-Cookman College, had been a public school teacher and principal. At 41, he applied for the UF Law School.

The Supreme Court found in Hawkins’ favor in 1956, but the Florida Supreme Court refused, citing states’ rights and the school implemented admission rules that made it impossible for Hawkins to apply.

In 1958, UF officials agreed to admit black students when Hawkins withdrew his 1949 application for admission. He was never admitted to UF, but his sacrifice integrated Florida’s public universities.

Hawkins did receive a law degree from New England School of Law in Boston. But he was not admitted to the Florida Bar until 1976 at the age of 70.

Tickets to attend the celebration are $40 each, available at the Hardaway Law Firm, 1022 Lakeland Hills Blvd, Lakeland, FL 33805. To purchase online, click “Tickets” on the events page: thevirgilhawkinsproject.com.

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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