Student survivors of the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are grieving. But they are also organizing. Within days of the tragedy students used social media, television events, and a planned “March for Our Lives” on March 24th to shape the message around the shooting: #NeverAgain.
Watching youth face down the powerful pro-gun lobby is breathtaking. This kind of fearless activism embodies the spirit of their school's namesake-Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Douglas was a lifelong activist who, like the Parkland students, was never afraid to demand justice from the powerful. And, like the Parkland students, she did it with savvy eloquence and a brash wit.
Born in Minnesota in 1890, Marjory Stoneman Douglas moved to the young city of Miami in 1915 to work at The Miami Herald. She used her platform to advance issues like women's suffrage and argue for women's right to equal pay for equal work.
Later Douglas was sent by the Herald to find the first Florida woman to enlist for service in World War I. Finding none, she signed up and became the first female enlistee herself. She joked that the Navy “didn't know what to do with a woman that didn't obey orders very well.”
By the late 1920s, Douglas had become a full-time writer devoted to feminism and conservation. In 1928, she joined other Floridians pushing for federal protection of the Everglades. After two decades of struggle, in 1947 Douglas was invited to sit behind President Truman as he announced the new Everglades National Park.
That same year Douglas published her masterpiece, The Everglades: River of Grass. The book's iconic first line proclaims the Everglades' global importance: “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they always have been, one of the unique regions of the earth.” Observers agree that River of Grass turned the country's most despised swamp into its most revered wetland. Douglas spent the next two decades publishing novels and histories set in the Everglades.
By 1969, though, Douglas's activism was just beginning. At age 79, she joined the movement to halt construction of a massive jetport in the middle of the Everglades. She founded the organization Friends of the Everglades and quickly grew its membership into the thousands.
The public was enthralled with the unapologetic, diminutive octogenarian that, from beneath her signature floppy hat, relentlessly criticized developers and politicians that would harm her beloved Everglades. The media granted her a long list of nicknames, including “First Lady of the Everglades” and “Mother Theresa of the Swamp.”
Douglas and the Friends of the Everglades helped block the jetport, scoring a major victory for the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970s. She continued her energetic activism through the 1980s and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.
At age 100, Douglas retired as president of Friends of the Everglades, the same year Broward County named its new high school in Parkland in her honor.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas was an activist for more than seven decades, demanding women's suffrage in the early 1900s and environmental protection in the 1970s. With piercing humor and a clear-eyed vision of justice, she took on Florida politicians, the sugar industry, private developers, and the federal government.
As Parkland students confront powerful pro-gun interests-as they lead the nation in chants of “Never Again!”-they should take inspiration from Douglas's long fight for a better world, from her stamina, and her conviction. Across the last century, Marjory Stoneman Douglas struggled to build a society that recognizes that a social and natural ecology links all our lives, safety, and future. Today, the students of Stoneman Douglas High School continue that struggle.
Antonio Ramirez is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Elgin Community College. He prepared the historic landmark nomination for Marjory Stoneman Douglas's home in Florida. The site was announced as a National Historic Landmark by President Obama on Earth Day 2015.