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Cunningham’s election broke racial barriers

Last week we told you about Frank Malcolm Cunningham being elected to the Riviera Beach City Council in 1962, a half-century ago this month, and becoming the first black person elected to public office in Florida, and possibly, the South, since Reconstruction.

He’d received 299 votes in a nearly all-white precinct.

When his family decided to honor the anniversary, they picked a “diversity” theme because of the often-overlooked factor in such racial milestones: Whites had to be a part of it.

Cunningham was reelected in 1964 and 1966. He left the council in 1968 to try to become the first black elected to the state legislature since Reconstruction. While Cunningham failed, civics teacher Joe Lang Kershaw of Dade County did earn the distinction.

Cunningham returned in 1971 as Riviera Beach’s first black city attorney. By then, it had become the state’s first integrated municipality with a black majority.

Cunningham would work with William Holland — he was the county’s first black lawyer; Cunningham was the second — to fight to desegregate schools, and successfully moved his own daughter, Karran, from Lincoln Junior High to Howell L. Watkins.

“I remember going to sit down in the lunchroom, and all the white people got up and moved,” Karran recalled last month.

Cunningham fought to open up golf courses and turnpike rest stops. In 1973, he founded Florida’s first minority-owned bank.

Not all was positive. In 1976, Cunningham was convicted of contempt of court for tampering with a tube of lipstick that was evidence against a man he was defending in a rape case. He appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing several others had handled the lipstick. In August 1977, he won a new hearing. But it never happened. Already his legal problems were moot. He had cancer.

Cunningham died March 2, 1978. He was only 51.

“You can’t kill an idea whose time has come,” the Rev. Johnny K. Bryant said at his funeral.

Cunningham’s name is on a Riviera Beach park and a bar association for black attorneys.


In this 1968 photo, Riviera Beach council members Alan C. Bennett (left) and Kenneth C. Ackerman peer over Frank Malcolm Cunningham’s shoulder to look at maps. (Palm Beach Post staff file photo)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg April 12, 2012 at 9:09 am.

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