Commentary

Carrie Meek spoke with the soft voice of a young girl — but you’d be wrong to treat her like one

November 30, 2021 7:00 am

Florida State Senator Carrie Meek waving a skull-and-bones flag during the 1982 session in Tallahassee, FL. Meek waves the flag as she warns against not funding a consumer advocate group at Florida State University. Photographer Donn Dughi. Donn Dughi collection. State Library and Archives of Florida.

Nothing shy about her.

Carrie Meek,  the legendary Florida office holder who died Sunday at 95 in her Miami home after a long illness, was a joy to be around. And she never met a stranger.

She spoke with the soft voice of a young girl, but you would make a mistake if you tried to treat her like one.

Meek was filled with the spirit of whatever crusade she was on at the time.  She bubbled with personality and a will to fight to the bitter end for worthy causes. She was a welcome thorn in the side of lawmakers like Sen. Richard Langley,  a Republican from Central Florida, and Senate President Dempsey Barron, a conservative Democrat. Both have passed away.

Elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1978, Meek defeated 12 other candidates.  It was a harbinger of things to come.  She left the House and won a state Senate seat in 1982.  There, she became a fixture in a state Capitol that once banned blacks from even entering the building. As a senator she was outspoken in defense of minorities and those who needed an advocate in the statehouse.

Standing up during Senate debates, she often declared the bills of those who opposed her as “Black Flag dead,’’ brandishing a black flag embossed with a skull and cross bones.

Meek remained in the state Senate for a decade before running for the U.S. Congress.

When she was elected to the U.S. House — with more than 82 percent of the vote in 1992 — she was one of the first African American lawmakers from Florida to represent the state in Congress since Reconstruction.

She had the nerve to pay a personal visit to then-U.S. House Speaker Thomas Foley and other Democratic leaders.  She told Foley she wanted to be on the House Appropriations Committee, a rare spot seldom given to newcomers.  As she left his office, Foley is reported to have told a staffer to put her on the committee. Foley is deceased.

Meek grew up in Tallahassee, just over the railroad tracks from the segregated state Capitol.  She was the youngest of 12 children, the daughter of a washer woman and a man who collected rents for the neighborhood landlord.  Her first job was helping her mother carry clean laundry up the hill to students at what is now Florida State University.

Back then in the 1930’s Black people were not welcome inside the state Capitol building. Those who dared to try and find a seat in its public galleries were often hustled out of their seats by officials. When Meek became the first Black woman elected to the state Senate she could look out her office window and see her old neighborhood.  She proceeded to spend much of her time working against segregation.

Meek graduated from a segregated high school and Florida A&M University, where she got a bachelor’s degree in physical education and biology.  She remains in FAMU’s Sports Hall of Fame for her achievements in track and basketball.

When she graduated from FAMU in 1946, black students were not permitted to attend Florida universities for advanced degrees.  Instead, the state paid for them to attend Northern universities.  Meek chose the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she earned a master’s degree in public health and physical education.  She returned to Florida to teach at a college for black students started by Mary McLeod Bethune in Daytona Beach.

The 10 years she spent there included direct contact with the famous Mrs. Bethune. Meek often said those contacts had a lot to do with shaping her life.  She later taught at FAMU for three years and moved to Miami after getting a better job at Miami-Dade Community College.

Meek taught there for seven years before taking an administrative job at the college and becoming deeply involved in helping resolve some of Miami’s inner city problems.  She helped bring about the creation of Senate districts that increased minority representation with help from Dempsey Barron, and then won the newly created seat.

Fellow legislators often credited Meek with teaching them they could get more done “with sugar than vinegar.’’

I spent a week or so traveling with Meek and her campaign helpers in 1992, when she won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat that had been held by then-U.S. Rep. William Lehman.

Hurricane Andrew had just devastated the area, but that didn’t faze Meek.

As we stopped at one place to talk to constituents, she was advised they had extra diapers and other supplies if anyone needed them. Meek immediately arranged to get the supplies to those who needed them, easily setting aside politics to meet a need.

It’s the way she worked.  And on that election night when she captured 82.5 percent of the vote to win the Democratic nomination, supporters of every race jammed the victory party in her honor.  It was no surprise to see well-known Miami lobbyist Ronnie Book carrying a tray of drinks across the room, waiting on the crowd.

At the party, Meek told supporters, “Congress ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The crowd broke into Meek’s favorite hymn: “Blessed Assurance.” Tears flowed from many eyes, including Meek’s as she held hands with her son, Kendrick, a Florida State trooper who later won a seat in the Florida House.

As news of Meek’s death spread Monday, many of those who knew her during her legislative career recalled a woman they described as “awesome,’’ saying she was always “a wonderful, warm person” and kind to House and Senate staff.

“I was working for Sen. Barron when she let loose with the ‘Black Flag dead’ comment,’’ recalled former lobbyist Sandi Walters in a Facebook post.  “I was on the Senate floor and had to leave, I was laughing so hard.  She really got Sen. Barron with that one!’’

State Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, is a former lobbyist who knew Meek and described her as “legendary,” saying “she made a huge difference. With much humor and aplomb.’’

We may never see the likes of Carrie Meek again.  She was such a force for good.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.

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