Robert King High

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Robert King High
High during 1964 Florida Democratic gubernatorial debate
29th Mayor of Miami
In office
January 1, 1957 – August 30, 1967
Preceded by Randy Christmas
Succeeded by Stephen P. Clark
Personal details
Born (1924-04-09)April 9, 1924
Flat Creek, Bedford County, Tennessee
Died August 30, 1967(1967-08-30) (aged 43)
Miami, Florida
Political party Democratic
Alma mater University of Miami (A.B.)
Stetson University (J.D.)
Occupation Attorney

Robert King High (April 9, 1924 – August 30, 1967) was a reform mayor of Miami, Florida from 1957 until his death, and the Democratic Party nominee for governor of Florida in 1966.

Early years[edit]

Robert King High was born in Flat Creek, Tennessee, where his father was a carpenter and farmer. With the coming of the Great Depression, the High family moved to Chattanooga. High began delivering newspapers when he was five years old. When he was ten he bought a lawn mower on credit and paid for it by mowing lawns and delivering groceries and milk. He later worked as a soda jerk and organized a band in which the members played in their ROTC uniforms until they could afford to buy tuxedos.[1]

After graduating from high school, High attended vocational school where he trained to be a welder. He then moved to New Orleans, Louisiana to work in a shipyard. With the United States entry into World War II, he lost his job at the shipyard and went to work in a women's shoe store, and soon was promoted to assistant manager of the chain's store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At the end of 1942, he left Baton Rouge to enter the University of Chattanooga. He left school soon after, however, to enlist in the Army Air Corps. High seriously injured his back during basic training, and a steel plate was placed to reinforce his back. He spent nearly a year in a military hospital after the operation.[2]

When High was discharged from the Army in 1944, he moved to Miami. He attended the University of Miami and then the Law School of Stetson University. With his law degree, High began practicing law in Miami. He soon was doing well enough to purchase a Cadillac, a speed boat and a house.[3]

In 1957, Abe Aronovitz, who had been Mayor of Miami in 1953–55, asked High to run for mayor. With Aronovitz's backing, High ran on a platform of promising nothing but honest government. He did not accept any campaign contributions of more than US$250.00. Unable to afford the billboards and television advertising that other candidates were using, High supporters would stand outside the Orange Bowl with home-made campaign banners on every Friday night that the University of Miami football team played a home game. High placed second out of five candidates in the primary, and beat the incumbent mayor, Randy Christmas, in the runoff.[4][5]


Once in office, High began tackling corruption. With most of the City Commissioners opposing him, he could do little as Mayor, but he began pushing to publicize problems. He visited strip clubs in the company of a reporter, leading to a series of reports of how the bars were cheating customers. He dressed in old clothes and, again accompanied by a reporter, bought bolita (an illegal lottery) tickets on the street. High won re-election in 1959, and was joined by new, reform-minded city commissioners.[6]

High's reform efforts drew national attention, and he was named one of a hundred outstanding young Americans by Life magazine. With a new majority on the city commission, the city's insurance business was reformed. Previous practice had been for each commissioner to give a share of the city's insurance to whomever they chose. In order to ensure that each commissioner could disburse an equal share of the insurance business, buildings were divided into parts insured by different companies. High and the new commissioners put all the city's insurance out to competitive bid. High also led a statewide campaign to force Florida Power & Light to lower its rates. After the City of Miami started a study of Southern Bell telephone rates, the Florida Public Service Commission ordered major reductions in those rates. High also led a fight to force the Florida East Coast Railway to pay the arrears in its assessed property taxes.[7] While High was Mayor, Miami adopted a $10,000 spending limit for city elections.[8]

High spoke Spanish well, and made a number of goodwill trips to Latin America. He exchanged visits with several heads of state of Latin American countries. Working with City Manager Melvin Reese, High established the Torch of Friendship in downtown Miami as a symbol of relations between Miami and Latin America. In 1959 High was sent to Cuba as part of a delegation trying to re-establish tourism between the United States and Cuba. The delegation was snubbed by Fidel Castro, who failed to keep several appointments with them. The delegation eventually gave up and returned to the United States.[9] As the Cuban Revolution proceeded, and the US blockade and embargo against Cuba tightened, Cuban refugees flooded into the United States, and High worked to accommodate 200,000 Cuban refugees in Miami.[10]

High was a strong supporter of civil rights. As Mayor he set up a panel to hear job grievances from blacks.[11] High was involved in the successful effort to integrate lunch counters in Miami.[12] He publicly backed the public accommodations section of Civil Rights Bill of 1964 while campaigning for governor.[13] Although he had received threats that he would be killed if he spoke in Pensacola, High told a crowd there that, "Segregation is wrong. It is evil and un-American."[14]

In 1963 Mayor High had a heart attack at age 39. He soon recovered and returned to his duties as mayor.[15]

In 1964, High was initiated as an Honorary brother in the Alpha Phi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi at the University of Florida.[16]

Candidate for governor[edit]

Since the last part of the 19th century, Florida governors had been limited to a single four-year term, and were elected in the same year as presidential elections. In the early 1960s, to stop strong Republican presidential candidates from influencing the vote for governor, Florida moved the election years for governors to fall between presidential elections. For the transition, the governor elected in 1964 would serve only two years, but would be eligible to run again in 1966 for a full four-year term.[17][18] High entered the race for governor in 1964. He announced that he would refuse to accept large campaign donations, and traveled the state in a DC-3. The Miami News was the only newspaper in the state to endorse High.[19] Throughout the 20th century Democratic candidates for Governor of Florida had supported segregation, some more strongly than others. High broke with that tradition, supporting the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and promising to promote racial equality. He said that equal treatment of all Americans was the "most sensible issue of our times".[20] High came in second out of five contenders in the Democratic primary, but lost the run-off to Jacksonville mayor Haydon Burns, who became governor (Florida had elected only Democratic governors since the end of Reconstruction).[21][22]

In June, 1965 High helped convince the American Football League to place an expansion franchise in Miami, which became the Miami Dolphins.[23] Also in 1965, Governor Burns proposed a large highway construction bond issue for Florida. High campaigned vigorously against the road bond measure, and it was defeated. The same year High was reelected to his fifth term as Mayor of Miami.[24]

High ran for governor again in 1966 under the slogan, "Integrity is the issue". Governor Burns charged that Robert F. Kennedy was behind High's campaign, pointing to three High campaign aides that had previously worked for Sargent Shriver, but Kennedy denied taking sides. High had been close to John F. Kennedy, as he had been the first elected official in Florida to support Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. Burns claimed to have the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but the White House denied taking sides.[25] Many conservative Democrats in Florida were alienated by High's racial views and ties to the Kennedys.[26] Moreover, High was from Miami, and Miami and Dade County represented high taxes and liberalism, and were feared and hated by many people in the rest of Florida.[27]

During the 1966 primary campaign, a seat became vacant on the Miami city commission. High appointed M. Athalie Range, a black woman, to the seat. Range had led in the primary for a seat on the commission in the 1965 election, but lost to a white man in the run-off by a small margin after her race was made an issue in the election. Range was the first black person to serve on the Miami city commission. She went on to twice win reelection on her own, and later served as the first black to head a Florida state agency.[28][29]

As had happened in the 1964 campaign, attempts were made to arouse segregationist white sentiments against High as the 'black' candidate. 'Throwaways', handouts with no attributed source, were circulated. One showed a pregnant black woman in a rocker, with the caption, "I went all the way with Robert King High". Another had pictures of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Robert King High, and was labeled, "A poker hand one joker and a pair of Kings." A photograph of High playing pickup football with some black newsboys was widely circulated.[30]

High again came in second in the primary, behind Burns. Scott Kelly, a conservative politician from rural northern Florida, who came in third in the primary, agreed to endorse High for the runoff, but did not plan to actively campaign. Governor Burns, however, charged that Kelly had offered to sell his support to Burns for $500,000, and that High had bought Kelly's support. The Miami News pointed out that High had raised only $140,000, while Burns had raised one million dollars for the campaign. Burns had spent $2.19 for each vote he had received, while Kelly had spent $1.40, and High had spent just 38 cents per vote. Kelly called Burns' charge "The Big Lie", and actively campaigned for High in the runoff.[31][32]

High won the run-off by a sizable margin, even getting 43% of the vote in Burns' hometown of Jacksonville. Kelly continued to actively support High in the general election campaign, the High and Kelly campaign staff, and after the run-off, that part of the Burns campaign staff that joined the campaign, did not mix very well.[33] Burns refused to support High, and several (independently-elected) Florida Cabinet officers actively campaigned for the Republican candidate for governor, Claude Kirk.[34] While Burns did not endorse Kirk, he placed much of his campaign organization at Kirk's disposal.[35] In September Don Petit, a moderate liberal and High's campaign manager, quit over differences with Scott Kelly. The conservative Kelly took over as campaign manager. Kelly was later replaced by Don Poorbaugh, another moderate liberal. The campaign also had scheduling problems. High was late to or missed a number of campaign events. The campaign was seen as faltering and in disarray. Both liberal and conservative Democrats became disaffected with High.[36]

Claude Kirk, the Republican candidate for governor, attacked High repeatedly. Kirk charged that under High, Miami had become the number two crime or sin city in country. One television advertisement showed a flashlight at the window of a dark room, and a woman screaming. Kirk called High an "extreme-liberal",[37] an ultra-liberal and "a rubber stamp for Washington, backed by the ultra-liberals", successfully linking High to the Johnson administration. Kirk started asking campaign crowds if they wanted "open housing". A new handout from a "Committee for Integrity in Government" showed a cartoon of High with the caption, "Black power is with you 100 percent, Bob, let's march." Kirk portrayed himself as pro-business, and accused High of not understanding the free-enterprise system. Just before the election, Kirk charged that the Dade County Grand Jury was withholding indictments and information detrimental to High, which would have a direct bearing on the election. However, the grand jury foreman said there were no un-issued indictments. Claude Kirk won the general election by about 160,000 votes, the first Republican to be elected governor of Florida since the end of the Reconstruction Era. Robert King High died of a heart attack less than a year later, on August 30, 1967.[38][39][40][41]

Robert King High has been memorialized in Miami by the Robert King High Park and the Robert King High Tower Public Housing Facility.[42][43]


  1. ^ Barnebey. pp. 18–19.
  2. ^ Barnebey. pp. 20–21.
  3. ^ Barnebey. pp. 21–23.
  4. ^ Barnebey. pp. 27–28.
  5. ^ Political Graveyard: Mayors of Miami – URL retrieved November 16, 2006
  6. ^ Barnebey. pp. 31–32.
  7. ^ Barnebey. p.33.
  8. ^ Barnebey. p. 54.
  9. ^ Barnebey. pp. 35–37.
  10. ^ Barnebey. pp. 41–42.
  11. ^ Time, September 8, 1967 – URL retrieved January 28, 2007
  12. ^ Barnebey. pp. 49–50.
  13. ^ Colburn & Scher. pp. 80
  14. ^ Barnebey. pp. 56–57.
  15. ^ Barnebey. pp. 48–49.
  16. ^ Alpha Phi Chapter Member Roll
  17. ^ Colburn. pp. 56-57
  18. ^ Kallina. p. 27
  19. ^ Barnebey. pp. 54–57.
  20. ^ Colburn&Scher. pp. 80-81
  21. ^ Barnebey. pp. 60–61.
  22. ^ Colburn. p. 55
  23. ^ Miami Dolphins Historical highlights, 1965 P. 506 (P. 42) at the Wayback Machine (archived February 20, 2006) – URL retrieved May 28, 2007
  24. ^ Barnebey. pp. 62–3.
  25. ^ Barnebey. pp. 38, 92–3.
  26. ^ Colburn&Scher. p. 83
  27. ^ Kallina. p. 28, 194
  28. ^ Barnebey. pp. 89–90.
  29. ^ Honoring Athalie Range – URL retrieved May 28, 2007
  30. ^ Barnebey. pp. 101–103.
  31. ^ Barnebey. pp. 126–138.
  32. ^ Time, "Two Mistakes Too Many", June 3, 1966 – URL retrieved January 29, 2007
  33. ^ Barnebey. pp. 156, 163–4, 169–174, 181–2.
  34. ^ Colburn&Scher. p. 83
  35. ^ Kallina. p. 36
  36. ^ Kallina. p. 34-35
  37. ^ Colburn&Scher. p. 83
  38. ^ Barnebey. pp. 175, 188–190, 195, 208.
  39. ^ Colburn. pp. 12-13, 59
  40. ^ Time, "A Wave Either Way", October 28, 1966 – URL retrieved January 29, 2007
  41. ^ Kallina. p. 32, 184
  42. ^ City of Miami – Robert King High Park Improvements – URL retrieved January 29, 2007
  43. ^ Miami-Dade County Public Housing Facilities – URL retrieved January 29, 2007


  • Barnebey, Faith High (1971). Integrity is the Issue: Campaign Life With Robert King High. Miami, Florida: E. A. Seemann Publishing, Inc. 
  • Colburn, David R. (2007). From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans: Florida and its Politics since 1940. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-3155-2. 
  • Colburn, David R.; Richard K. Scher (1980). Florida's Gubernatorial Politics in the 20th Century. Gainesville, Florida: University Presses of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-0644-9. 
  • Kallina, Edmund F., Jr. (1993). Claude Kirk and the Politics of Confrontation. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-1189-2. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Randy Christmas
Mayor of the City of Miami
Succeeded by
Stephen P. Clark