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Civil rights activist: Youth could prompt lawmakers to act on gun policy

A local civil rights activist we spoke to says he sees parallels to today and the fight against segregation in the 1960s.

With Florida at the center of a national gun debate, Gov. Rick Scott says he’ll be proposing a measure Friday to keep students safe and prevent people with mental illnesses from getting guns.

But survivors of last week’s mass shooting say that’s not enough and hope their protests will initiate tougher gun laws.

Their efforts are not so different from another group of teens protesting segregation in the 1960’s.

A local civil rights activist we spoke to says the voices of the youth could be what makes lawmakers take action.

When Clarence Fort passes by what used to be F.W. Woolworth’s, a five and dime store in downtown Tampa, he can’t help but think of how he and dozens of teenagers helped change history in the 1960s.

He was 20 years old and president of the NACCP Youth Council. Pictures show him and teens he recruited from the two all-black high schools sitting in silence at the lunch counter, protesting segregation and demanding change.

“I took the first seat and the others filled in around me,” he said. “The police came. They didn’t do anything. They stayed behind us to keep people from getting close to us.”

Their efforts for change are much like the teens who lived through last week’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Wednesday, hundreds of survivors traveled to the state capital in Tallahassee doing sit-ins and protests of their own. They want lawmakers and President Donald Trump to toughen gun laws.

“I think the young kids are resilient and I don’t think they’re going to stop,” Fort said. “They don't have any fear or anything to lose, so it's a big advantage.”

The F.W. Woolworth building where Fort and the others were protesting is now empty, as it's been for most of the years since the sit-ins 58 years ago. The local demonstration Fort organized was also part of a national movement.

Six months later, thanks in part to the voices of the youth, Fort says their protests paid off when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

As the years have passed, Fort’s act of courage still resonates with a new generation he now shares his story with.

“I was on a bus tour today and they didn’t even know. They said, 'What is segregation?'”

Fort hopes students fighting for change will see a similar outcome sooner than later.

Fort was also instrumental in integrating local movie theaters, the city of Tampa’s bus service and became one of the first black bus drivers in our state for the Trailways bus line.

In recognition of his efforts, the city of Tampa named a park in his honor, calling it the Clarence Fort Freedom Trail. It’s in East Tampa.

To read more on Clarence Fort, read this article from our partners at The Tampa Bay Times.