Note: John4, Daniel3, Timothy2, Timothy1) was born January 27, 1896, in Pensacola, FL. Self educated, he read for the law and was admitted to the Florida Bar at the age of 19, one of the youngest men ever admitted.
According to his daughter, he worked for a cousin in the sawmill and building business during the day, while studying law at night. Filled with ideas that "a man stood up for his country and his ideas. . . and that was that" by his idealistic mother, he became a prominent Pensacola attorney and one of the most controversial figures in Western Florida during the late 1940s and 1950s.
Tall and slender, with brown hair and eyes, the year after he passed the bar exam, he enlisted (April 27, 1918) in the US Army and served as a sergeant major in the field artillery during WW I. A student at Officer's Training School when WW I came to an end, he returned to Pensacola, where he took up the practice of the law.
By the early 1920s his penchant for accepting clients with unpopular causes began to show its face. A friend of local Blacks, "Lawyer Coe" is remembered by colleagues for his energy and industry as one of Pensacola's earliest plaintiff's lawyers. When attorneys gathered in front of the courthouse at the beginning of each term to file their cases, "Coe always had many more than any other lawyer - mostly damage suits."
In 1924 he was appointed to fill the vacated Democratic state senate seat of John P. Stokes, who soon after election moved to the greener pastures of Miami. Described as a "businessman's politician," he entered the legislature pushing a bill to help collect Escambia County back taxes, a judicial reform measure and a conservative bill designed to assist Pensacola's fishing industry.
Coe's "radical" side came to light in his opposition to a "Bible bill," which would have required daily readings from the King James version of the Bible in Florida classrooms, and a search and seizure bill, which would have given tremendous latitude to police in enforcing prohibition statutes.
Neither bill passed, but both gave fuel to Coe's opponents in the election of 1926. Politically embittered by his failed attempt for re-election, he dedicated ever increasing energies to his law practice and became a successful attorney during the 1930s and 40s. A meticulous, unrelenting advocate in court, he took great lengths to convince himself of his clients' causes before litigation ever began.
A veritable Perry Mason with few courtroom losses, a large Pensacola business reportedly kept him on retainer to prevent him from filing suit against them, fearing they would surely lose.
After his term in the state senate, his practice began taking on a new quality. In 1948 he stated, "In my law practice since 1929, I have been particularly interested in defending cases of Negroes who were subject to discrimination and oppression."
He was so impassioned by the civil rights cases in which he became involved, two were tried in the United States Supreme Court, one of which resulted in permitting Blacks to register and vote in the Florida Democratic primary.
Considering that he hailed from a family of wealth and influence, John's heart and mind were made from strange stuff for his time and place. A hard working and financially successful attorney, he became the ally of Blacks and the poor, pitted in a predetermined battle against the indomitable Southern establishment.
Many considered him a radical, possibly a communist. A cross was burned on his lawn after he defended a Mississippi Black accused of raping a white housewife. He represented clients embroiled in cases of peonage in Pineapple, AL, and Franklin County, FL, turpentine camps; segregation on Pensacola city buses; a Jim Crow ordinance requiring Black citizens to defer to whites on city sidewalks; honest citizens accused of being communists; and numerous instances of negotiation between Pensacola police and members of the local Black community.
John's credo was simple. He believed that government should guarantee citizens' opportunity, personal security, health, safety, and well-being; was liberal in his support of big government ensuring economic equity; and was strict in matters involving civil liberties and constitutional rights of individuals. He espoused his ideas as the hope of the common man.
A third congressional district delegate to all four Roosevelt conventions, he was twice a member of the platform committee. He and Senator Claude Pepper fought vigorously to keep Henry Wallace on the Democratic ticket in 1944.
A member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he served as president of the National Lawyers Guild.
Staunchly patriotic, he attempted to enlist during WW II at the age of 44, but was refused. An archenemy of fascism, he gloried in stories about the fighting in Europe.
When former Democratic Vice President Henry Wallace launched his Progressive Party and announced his intention to run for president in 1947, John found a political cause in tune with his own Jeffersonian heart. Though Wallace was lambasted as a lost soul whose ideas originated in Moscow, John defied social pressure and put all of his savvy into attempting to get Wallace elected to the White House.
A close friend of Florida Governor John W. Martin and US Senator Claude Pepper, Coe was elected chairman of the People's Progressive Party of Florida on April 17, 1947, a position he held for four years. At the Progressive Party Convention in Philadelphia in 1948, he served as secretary of the rules committee and was a member of the platform committee.
Returning to Florida, he crisscrossed the state, romanticizing Wallace as the only hope for a libertarian future. His progressive ideas met little sympathy in a conservative South. On October 20 he and Progressive vice presidential candidate, Idaho Senator Glenn H. Taylor, were pelted with eggs at Jacksonville as they tried to present their case to a unappreciative proletariat.
Though tremendous energy and effort was extended during the summer of 1948, Coe and his party turned out only 11,620 Florida votes for Wallace and his running mate in the election that fall. Dejected, he wrote to campaign manager Marjorie Haynes that Wallace's liberalism was obviously ahead of its time.
Back home in Pensacola, attitudes weren't as docile. Pensacola had become a lonely place for Coe and his family, where he was lambasted as a communist and a "Nigger lover." The Pensacola Kiwanis Club, in which he took great pride in being a member, tried him for impure thoughts and threw him out. He went through a similar experience with the American Legion and resigned in bitterness. He was forced to carry a gun under the seat of his car and came close to using it on at least one occasion.
When Coe and his wife returned from a trip to Cuba with a group of liberals, the Pensacola News Journal ran the headline, "IS COE COMMUNIST?" He was a man who did not fit in with his surroundings.
The Progressive Party survived in Florida until 1952, although it's Tampa office, where Coe held court, closed in 1951. After the demise of the party he helped found, his views became more idealistic.
His involvement with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Conference Education Fund, the Committee for the Bill of Rights, the Civil Rights Congress, the National Lawyers Guild, and other civil rights causes became more intense. Stubborn, headstrong, nonconforming, eccentric, he became the ultimate "poor man's lawyer," despising oppression wherever he saw it.
Bella Abzug, president of the National Women's Organization, a prot�eg�e of Coe's, wrote to him before his death: "You must know that your ability, courage, and strength can only be likened to an oasis in a desert. Everything that you are in view of your whole background, of the relationship of forces with whom you are in daily contact, stands out as a might[y] example and symbol of truth and honesty at a time when so little of that kind of thing prevails in either North or South, East or West. For me as a young person, comparatively inexperienced both in the ways of the law and in the ways of the world, my contact with you was a rich thing from which I gained much inspiration and courage."
He died Sept. 11, 1973, in Pensacola. Burial was at St. John's Cemetery. He was a subject of the book "Standing Against Dragons: Three Southern Lawyers in an Era of Fear" (Louisiana State University Press, 1998).
Carl Robert Coe, "The Coe Families of Maryland and Virginia" (Columbus, OH: 2002), 1: 211-214; Sarah Hart Brown, "Pensacola Progressive: John Moreno Coe and the Campaign of 1948," in the Florida Historical Quarterly (1989); Karl M. Schmidt, "Henry A. Wallace: Quixotic Crusade 1948" (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1960); Bella S. Abzug to John M. Coe, June 20, 1951; interviews with James Mansfield Coe, Gulf Breeze, FL, April 29, May 13, 1990, Henry Wickline Coe, April 29, 1990, Marie Parker Coe, May 25, 1990, Evalyn Grubb, Pensacola, FL, May 27, 1990.
Note: JOHN MORENO8 COE (John McClay7, Dr. William Cecil6, Maj. Jesse5, Capt.
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