Dixie remembered as being fearless in push for civil rights
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Rev. Henry Marion Steele couldn’t find a single word to describe Laura Dixie, whose activism for civil rights brought about major changes in race relations and workplace fairness in Tallahassee.
Steele, however, said enough to capture the essence of Dixie’s life Friday when hundreds of her friends and family eulogized her. Dixie died on Nov. 11 at Capital Regional Medical Center at the age of 92.
Dixie worked alongside Henry’s father, the Rev. C.K. Steele, in his mission to desegregate Tallahassee. Dixie was especially active in the movement to desegregate the city’s bus system.
“When you think of Laura Dixie, you automatically think of civil rights,” Steele said to a packed Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, where Dixie was a member for 65 years. “We will miss her tremendously, but we can rest assured that she did her part.
“We can rest assure that she held the banner high. We can rest assure she was a sharp child of God. If there were more Laura Dixie’s in the world there would be no racial discrimination. There would be no mistreatment of mankind. She was one who stood for right, stood for justice, stood for mankind, but most of all she stood for Jesus.”
Dixie’s passion to fight for human rights didn’t stop with tackling racism in Tallahassee. She was among the marchers in 1965 at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala. Dixie was also there with Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King and Dick Gregory when they protested against the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Forsyth, Ga., in 1987.
Dixie was the founder of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union local chapter. She served as vice president of the NAACP and was a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
A certified nurse assistant, Dixie formed the local chapter of the AFSCME to fight for improved benefits for employees at the old Sunland Hospital. Her activism led to improved salaries and better work conditions for White, Hispanic and Black employees.
During a 1983 AFSCME meeting, she asked for solidarity among workers.
“We must say it and do it and mean it,” Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida professor who researched Dixie’s life, said she told the AFSCME members more than three decades ago. “We must come back together. We have worked so hard together for so long; there’s no reason to stop now. The most important thing is that all public employees get organized in one strong union.”
Dixie and her husband, Samuel, were instrumental in connecting Tallahassee workers with others who were fighting for workplace equality around the country, Ortiz wrote.
“I swear to you today,” Ortiz said during the funeral service, “We are going to do all we can, as historians, followers and colleagues to remember to promote the history and the story of Laura Dixie for brothers and sisters in the struggle and what they did to make this country a better country.”
Dixie also had a reputation in her Jake Gaither neighborhood for being a mentor to young people. She often encouraged them to get into the civil rights struggle, as she did when she organized a group of FAMU students for a sit-in over segregated lunch counters at a Woolworths store.
Rev. R.B. Holmes reflected on just that while giving the eulogy.
“We came here to celebrate the life of a mother; the mother of the movement,” Holmes said. “Behind every great movement, there is a mighty mother. Sister Dixie was a good mother, a caring mother, a courageous mother; and yes, a Christian mother. ”
Indeed she was, especially to Steele’s children. Derek Steele, youngest of the children, recalled how Dixie and one of her neighbors counseled him during a time when he struggled with addiction.
“They came and got me,” said Steele, who like his father became a minister. “They brought me some clothes and some food. They told me they were there for me and I should believe in God for my life to change.
“It impacted me greatly because you need to know people love you and you’re not thrown away. When people love you, you see God loves you. For me it translated because it was proven to me that God has not forgotten me.”
Geraldine Davis, another of Dixie’s neighbors, said she remembered Dixie as being outspoken. She mentioned the time that she encouraged her neighborhood to take on a politician that she thought was ineffective.
“What you all doing to get that man out of office,” Davis recalled Dixie saying. “He is not helping anybody but himself.”
When Dixie’s grandson entered middle school, she made it her business to take a trip to issue a warning to his teachers.
“Dwayne has parents who love him and if they didn’t treat him right they’re going to have to answer to them,” Davis said. “I looked at her and said, this woman is little but she is big.”
It wasn’t unusual for some of the best-known civil rights leaders to visit Dixie’s home. Martin Luther King was one of them and Davis told of how taken aback Dixie’s husband was when King thought nothing of riding in their Chevy that Samuel thought “didn’t look so good.”
The work that Dixie did in her community and as a civil rights activist won’t soon be forgotten, Holmes said.
“She’s a mother who left a legacy,” he said. “Something to remember. Something to hold onto.”