As the country reels from the latest school mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and student survivors begin to lead the gun control debate, the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas has been repeated on air, in print, and online. The woman the school is named for might not be familiar to Americans across the country, but in Florida she was an influential journalist and activist who spoke out on issues far ahead of the mainstream discourse — be it environmentalism, women's rights, or racial equality.
Douglas was born more than a century ago in 1980, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but moved to Miami after her short-lived marriage ended. She was just 25 and went to work for her dad, who was the editor of The Miami Herald. She started out writing for the society pages but moved later to the editorial page and becoming a "writer of note," according to the National Park Service. She ended up covering all sorts of issues and took on "the fight for feminism, racial justice, and conservation."
That connection to activism has been pointed to as significant. And given the actions of students at the high school named after her this past week, there's a good chance they could follow her legacy and create lasting change.
Even she, though, was hesitant at times about whether she would succeed in the fight to protect the Everglades — something that once seemed as impossible as the fight for gun control does now. "I'll tell you, the whole thing is an enormous battle between man's intelligence and his stupidity," Douglas told NPR in 1981. "And I'm not at all sure that stupidity isn't going to win out in the long run."
But she succeeded, even if her journalism-activism spanned decades. In 1917 she went to Tallahassee to help gain Florida women's right to vote. In 1947 she had refocused on protecting the Everglades, publishing a first-of-its-kind conservation book, The Everglades: River of Grass. It detailed how the eco systems of Southern Florida were being put in danger by the development of wetlands for agriculture or development.
Ultimately Douglas was given the credit for the creation of Everglades National Park, and her work to protect the area continued through the '50s. According to the National Park Service, "the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rose to the top of her list of enemies." They put in place a huge public works project in Florida that protected from seasonal flooding using canals and levees.
Part of her success may have stemmed from the direct way that she spoke truth to power, something seen in speeches by student survivors in recent days. John Rothchild wrote in the introduction to her autobiography, Voice of the River, about her way with public speaking when opposing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects:
She reminded us all of our responsibility to nature and I don't remember what else. Her voice had the sobering effect of a one-room schoolmarm's. The tone itself seemed to tame the rowdiest of the local stone crabbers, plus the developers, and the lawyers on both sides. I wonder if it didn't also intimidate the mosquitoes.
Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune wrote of meeting her in the 1980s, and how determination is ultimately what made her activism a success. "This thing’s got to be done. It’s not a question of how I feel from moment to moment," Douglas told her.
"Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics,” Schmich quoted her as saying, “but never give up."
It doesn't look like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are ready to give up anytime soon.