Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school is now synonymous with a Valentines Day massacre, however, the school in Parkland Florida was named after a leading figure in the history of American conservationism. Marjory was a writer best known for her Everglades conservation advocacy. Marjory helped people to understand that the well being of humanity is inextricably linked to the health of the environment. One of her critics described her as having both “moral authority” and a tongue like a “switchblade”.
The core of Marjory’s enduring legacy is her stalwart defense of the Everglades. Over the period of many decades, she succeeded in fighting off development efforts in the Everglades. She galvanized people in defense of what she described as an ecosystem worth protecting. If it were not for her, the Everglades may very well have been drained and developed. Consequently, she has earned the appellation of “Grand Dame of the Everglades”.
Among the many awards and distinctions that she earned in her life is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal is the highest honor given to a civilian. The citation for the medal read, “Marjory Stoneman Douglas personifies passionate commitment. Her crusade to preserve and restore the Everglades has enhanced our Nation’s respect for our precious environment, reminding all of us of nature’s delicate balance. Grateful Americans honor the ‘Grandmother of the Glades’ by following her splendid example in safeguarding America’s beauty and splendor for generations to come.”
Marjory was one of the first to make the connection between the health of the environment and the well being of humanity. She never relented in her efforts to raise consciousness and confront injustice. She was a woman of action who was well known for embarrassing politicians. She unflinchingly spoke truth to power calling out Presidents, politicians and powerful developers. In addition to being one of America’s leading figures in environmental conservation, Marjory was an accomplished journalist, author, and civil rights, advocate.
The Parkland High School is not the only building that bears her name. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s headquarters in Tallahassee is named after her and the National Parks Conservation Association established an award in her name. She was inducted into the National Wildlife Federation Hall of Fame and the Women’s Hall of Fame. Marjory was a pragmatic soul who asked that people plant trees rather than giving her presents.
Women’ s rights
It is fitting that we remember Marjory close to Women’s Day as she was very active in the women’s suffrage movement. She was a feminist before the word was invented. She not only followed the movement she was a leading voice. She anticipated some of the core issues of our times including the importance of having women in leadership positions.
Marjory once said, “It is a women’s business to be interested in the environment”. She did not back down when she was ignored or dismissed as a “damn butterfly chaser”, nor did she heel when President Richard Nixon eliminated funding for her Everglades protection organization.
Marjory was born on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota but she spent most of her life in Florida. Although Marjory wrote many books, her most influential work is a 1947 book called The Everglades: River of Grass. This book has been compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. At sixteen she published her first story in St. Nicholas Magazine, the same publisher that would go on to publish Carson’s first story many years later. One year later she won a prize from the Boston Herald for a story called, “An Early Morning Paddle.”
Marjory earned a BA in English from Wellesley College where she distinguished herself as an excellent student and capable orator. She was first sensitized to the plight of refugees after the first world war when she served as a member of the American Red Cross in Paris. She then served as assistant editor and daily columnist at the Miami Herald. She promoted responsible urban planning in Miami while supporting free trade.
Social and environmental injustice were common themes in her writing. She spearheaded support for the tropical botanical garden in South Florida which sought to make the Everglades into a national park. In the 30s Marjory began writing plays, in the 40s Marjory worked as the book review editor of the Miami Herald. In the 50s, Marjory was the charter member of the first American Civil Liberties Union chapter in the South. She was also an active supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In 1952 she published her first of four novels. She also published several nonfiction books. She was the editor of the University of Miami Press in the early 60s and kept writing throughout her life.
Marjory was also a visionary who presaged much of our modern day environmental movement. Her views have withstood the test of time. In a Miami Herald column on poverty, Marjory warned of “weak or inadequate” government and lax public opinion. Marjory’s prophetic voice is especially prescient in the realm of environmental conservation.
Florida Governor Lawton Chiles described her legacy saying, “Marjory was the first voice to really wake a lot of us up to what we were doing to our quality of life. She was not just a pioneer of the environmental movement, she was a prophet, calling out to us to save the environment for our children and our grandchildren.”
A figure for the ages
University of Florida professor Kevin McCarthy wrote the introduction to a collection of Marjory’s short stories titled, A River in Flood. “Probably no other person has been as important to the environmental well-being of Florida than this little lady from Coconut Grove”, McCarthy wrote in the introduction.
Just before she died the Christian Science Monitor said of The River of Grass, “her book is not only a classic of environmental literature, it also reads like a blueprint for what conservationists are hailing as the most extensive environmental restoration project ever undertaken anywhere in the world”.
Marjory died on May 14, 1998 at the age of 108. Her obituary in the Independent read as follows, “In the History of the American environmental movement, there have been few more remarkable figures than Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”