In April 1949, Virgil D. Hawkins, a former faculty member of Bethune Cookman College, applied for admission to the University of Florida's law school. He was academically eligible and possessed appropriate life experience qualifications.
However, the long road to achieving his goal of becoming a lawyer would force him to persevere for nine more years and overcome Florida's Jim Crow laws that racially segregated its state universities. His journey would eventually open the doors of Florida's public universities to African Americans, although not to him.
In May of 1949, the University of Florida, through the Florida Board of Control (later Board of Regents), denied his admission (as well as five other African-American graduate school applicants) based solely upon race. Mr. Hawkins sought relief through the Florida Supreme Court. The Court acknowledged that he possessed "all the scholastic, moral and other qualifications except as to race and color" for admission (State ex rel. Hawkins, 47 So. 2d 608, 609 (Fla. 1950)). He did not prevail due to the Court's finding that under the Equal Protection Clause, Florida could pay for his legal education in a different state or Florida would build a law school for black students [at Florida A&M University].
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ordered the public schools desegregated "with all deliberate speed" by 1956 in Brown v. Board of Education and in a companion decision ordered the University of Florida to admit Virgil Hawkins. However, Virgil Hawkins was still not admitted to the University of Florida. Petitioning for his admission to the University of Florida College of Law, Mr. Hawkins eventually went before the Florida Supreme Court three times and the United States Supreme Court twice. After the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Florida to immediately enroll him in 1957, the Florida Supreme Court concluded that federal law could be superseded by state law in some instances (the now-discredited "interposition" doctrine) Florida Supreme Court Oral Argument Press Summaries (see public information summaries, oral argument 5-99).
In 1958, Hawkins withdrew his application in exchange for a court order desegregating UF's graduate and professional schools. On September 15, 1958, George Starke was admitted to the College of Law, UF's first African-American law student. Mr. Hawkins' efforts to desegregate UF law school led the way for the desegregation of the entire State University System in Florida. In 1962, W. George Allen became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Florida College of Law.
Mr. Hawkins eventually received his J.D. 27 years after first applying to the University of Florida. Upon graduation he stated his goal was to offer legal assistance to "people, just barely making a living who don't qualify for legal aid, but still can't afford to hire an attorney." In 1976, he appeared before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. His application to take the Florida Bar Examination had been denied because the Massachusetts law school from which he had graduated was not accredited by the American Bar Association, a formerly segregated organization. After a successful appeal, at the age of 69 Mr. Hawkins took his oath of office and became a member of The Florida Bar by special waiver.
After years of serving the poor and under-represented in Lake County, Mr. Hawkins was brought before the Bar on ethics charges. At the time, some felt his advanced years and the lapse of time since his education led to errors in his professional judgment. Others would agree that his civil rights work and his historical involvement with Florida's desegregation did not help his cause. Unable to afford a lawyer and facing discipline, Hawkins resigned from the Bar in 1985. Three years later, at age 81, Mr. Hawkins died. Soon thereafter, attorney Harley Herman, who had worked in the Civil Clinics with Professor Peters, petitioned for Mr. Hawkins' reinstatement (The Florida Bar, In re Virgil Darnell Hawkins, 532 So.2d 669 (Fla. 1988)).
Harley Herman, who had served as the Executive Director of the Virgil Hawkins Civil Rights Foundation, campaigned for more than a decade to publicly honor the Civil Rights pioneer. His dedication to Mr. Hawkins' cause has resulted in a number of successes in garnering attention and recognition of the importance of Mr. Hawkins' struggle. The Florida Supreme Court, making him a Florida attorney before the “Bar of Heaven”, posthumously reinstated Virgil D. Hawkins’ bar membership. The action was credited as the world's first posthumous bar reinstatement. In 1989 Governor Bob Martinez signed into law a bill, which named the UF's civil legal clinics in honor of Mr. Hawkins. Professor Don Peters, founder and 30-year director of the civil clinics, oversaw the naming of the clinics to the Virgil Darnell Hawkins Civil Legal Clinics. See also The Florida Bar re: Virgil Darnell Hawkins, Opinion No. 72,240 (filed October 20, 1988).
On May 25, 1999, the Florida Supreme Court sat in special ceremonial session in response to a request by Florida's NAACP chapters to publicly honor the 50th anniversary of one of its landmark cases: Florida's first desegregation lawsuit, State ex rel. Hawkins, 47 So. 2d 608, 609 (Fla. 1950). After viewing the documentary narrated by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan covering in detail Virgil D. Hawkins' story, Major B. Harding, Florida's chief justice, looked squarely at the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard about a regrettable and poignant moment in the jurisprudential history of this Court. We must learn from the lessons taught . . . hatred and discrimination will not triumph." In 2001, UF awarded its first posthumous honorary degree in its 150-year history to Mr. Hawkins, with the unanimous consent of the Faculty Senate and the Board of Regents.