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Marjory and Joe

Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s ­Chesapeake connection

       The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, have a patron saint to inspire them as they reconstruct their terror and grief into a national cause, rallying students around the country to end gun violence. Their school’s namesake was a champion for social justice activism for most of her long life.
      In her greatest achievement, she also has an intimate connection to Chesapeake Country, where our own students March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24.
      Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ 108 years stretched through two centuries (1890-1998). A 1912 graduate of Wellesley College whose father had co-founded the Miami Herald, she lived in Coconut Grove for more than half a century. 
      While making a living as a writer, she became an activist. She was an early supporter of the labor rights of immigrant and migrant-worker communities and a founding board member of the first ACLU chapter in the South. She became a suffragist through her work with women’s clubs organizing to stop the killing of exotic birds for stylish feather plumage, a fashion from the 1890s into the 20th century.
      The suffragists’ experiences lobbying the Florida state legislature paralleled Stoneman Douglas student encounters just weeks ago in Tallahassee as they sought specific action to make schools safe and end gun violence.
      “We could have been talking to a bunch of dead mackerel, for all the response we got,” Douglas said after a suffragist lobbying trip to the state capital in 1917. 
      Her biographer, University of Florida professor Jack E. Davis, notes “that the Florida legislature did not officially recognize a woman’s right to vote until 1969.” 
       Douglas was not about to be deterred. She continued her commitment, giving her last speech in 1989, at the age of 99, focusing on women’s rights. She insisted, as are today’s students, on specific immediate action while planning for a long campaign.
      Douglas’s writing gained national recognition when she was among those chosen by the federal government at the end of World War II to write about America’s rivers. Her contribution was The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947. One and a half million acres of the vast extraordinary south Florida ecosystem became the Everglades National Park December 6, 1947, a month after publication of her book and the result of decades of tireless conservation efforts. 
     Douglas’s transformation from an accomplished environmental writer to iconic environmental activist at the age of 78 came about because of Joe Browder, my late husband, of Fairhaven.
      Joe entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s life in 1967, as plans to build the world’s largest jetport — with supersonic aircraft — threatened Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Swamp, the Miccosukee tribe and south Florida’s extraordinary natural ecosystem.
       Growing up in Texas, Mexico, Florida and Cuba, Joe loved birding and wandering through swamps. From an NBC Miami reporter, he became the first southeastern regional representative of the National Audubon Society, based in Coconut Grove. Joe was a recognized leader in the hard-fought campaign to save Biscayne Bay from an oil refinery and development of the Bay’s islands. By age 30 he attended Lyndon Johnson’s bill signing ceremony in 1968 creating Biscayne National Monument, which became protected as Biscayne National Park in 1974.
     The threat of the jetport in Big Cypress was the biggest challenge Joe had faced. While he developed a strategy and a small coalition of volunteers, he needed a respected person who embodied the wisdom of an elder. “That person would be Marjory Stoneman Douglas,” Davis writes.
      Douglas, who had had been observing Joe’s conservation campaigns, told him she doubted if she had the power he imagined. Joe persuaded her otherwise. Thus began Friends of the Everglades, with its $1 membership fee to involve students and young people. 
      Douglas and Joe’s friendship led to many conservation collaborations. The most sweeping was the ultimate defeat of the jetport and the creation of Big Cypress Preserve, which also protected the Miccosukee tribe and hunters who had been essential to the success of the campaign. President Nixon became a supporter and signed the Big Cypress Preserve legislation in 1974. 
      Joe changed the last 29 years of Douglas’s life. She became a nationally recognized environmental activist from age 78 to 108, lucid through her last days and always concerned about younger generations and their aspirations. She campaigned tirelessly with her signature string of pearls and wide-brimmed hats. She was respected and feared by many Florida legislators — whose predecessors had been dismissive of her and her suffragist colleagues. The Florida Department of Natural Resources building was named in her honor as is the high school bearing her name in Parkland. In 1993, at the age of 103, she traveled to Washington to receive the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton.
      Following the assault in Parkland, Jack Davis reminded us in the Tampa Bay Times that “Marjory would be proud of these kids. Whether the students know it or not, their initiative is in keeping with Douglas’ legacy.” 
     Three hundred copies of Jack David’s biography, An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century, will be given to students at Parkland High School graduation. Interested supporters please email [email protected]