SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

Carter family helps ‘Florida’s Best Kept Secret’ find its voice

Eric J. Wallace
Pensacola News Journal

A group of high-profile Panhandle athletes led a march in solidarity with the national movement against police brutality as Tropical Storm Cristobal lashed rain, wind and floods on Sunday evening in Navarre Park.

Organized by Dwayne Carter II, a former Navarre High football standout and Harding University running back, the event drew well over 100 protesters to support Black Lives Matter and efforts to end police brutality.

Along with Carter's brothers, Michael and Josh, the protest's central figures were largely current and former football athletes who've thrilled Panhandle audiences over the past decade.

Their connections throughout Northwest Florida and beyond served as a node for this small-town protest, putting prominent local faces on an issue dominating the national discourse.

“We just want to be treated like people,” Dwayne Carter said. “We want everybody to know that it’s not just a black vs. white thing. It’s a right or wrong thing.”

Few speeches captured the crowd’s attention quite like that of Tony Carter, a longtime coaching figure with the Navarre High athletics program and the father of Dwayne, Michael and Josh – former Navarre football stars and current or former college football players.

Addressing the crowd, Tony Carter explained what he and many other black experience while seeing videos of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and other prominent, violent deaths at the hands of police.

Tony Carter recounted how many moons prior he and two friends were pulled over while driving in South Carolina. Without requesting identification or other typical paperwork, police told the 16-year-old Carter to drive down a side dirt road, a request ushered by two police officers in cars trailing and leading the boys’ vehicle.

Upon stopping, Tony explained how he and his friends, both black, were pulled from the vehicle and shoved to the ground. Officers used their boots to push the boys’ heads into the dirt, a position he said was not too dissimilar from the one George Floyd faced at the end of his life.

The boys were racially abused and told they would die that night, Tony said. The cold steel of the officer’s gun on his skin only emphasized to Tony his looming fate.

But Tony and his friends were spared, not for their humanity or fellow citizenship, but likely due to his football exploits. Upon learning his name, several officers recognized Tony from his recent standout performances and chose not to follow through on threats.

While athletic feats may have saved his life, Tony said they didn’t spare him further indignity. The final words shared between Tony and the officer remain seared into memory:

“N****, it’s your lucky day,” the officer said.

“Thank you,” a tearful Tony felt obligated to reply.

Tony Carter’s eyes welled up and his voice shuttered at those words in front of the silenced crowd at Navarre Park. It’s a story the Carter brothers have heard many times in their lives, but not one Tony had shared in such a forum.

“I spent the vast majority of my life trying to suppress those memories,” Tony Carter said. “(Them listening to me) is the biggest compliment that we can have and it’s a testament to the people of this community.

“People like Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve been proud to see this day because these people came out in adverse conditions to be a voice for change.”

Tony Carter’s story, like many from the evening’s speakers, elicited cries of support and solidarity from crowd members.

Sheltering from the storm under a pavilion, the march took on a revival-style atmosphere with speakers rising atop tables to address their friends, family and community. Pizza, soda and water were handed out as speakers were interspersed with live music and Black Lives Matter chants supporting George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.

University of West Florida head football coach Pete Shinnick led the night’s opening prayer with many other Argo players and coaches in attendance, including a speech from former Argos standout receiver and Navarre local Quentin Randolph.

Dwayne Carter said it was important to build a peaceful, welcoming atmosphere at the march. As difficult as the conversation can already be, he said it can become impossible for those who feel threatened or uncomfortable by the demonstrations.

The importance of building that change and awareness, however, far outweighed whatever discomfort might come from the conversation.

“To get what you want, you have to give a little,” Dwayne Carter said. “… You have to make people comfortable to have uncomfortable talks. Some people don’t want to talk because they feel everyone hates them. It’s easier to have that uncomfortable talk when people are surrounded by love.

“We’ve already seen one piece of change in unifying the community. I’ve seen and talked to a lot of people who didn’t know about the issue previously. So we’re seeing changes as we speak in terms of awareness.”

Eric J. Wallace can be reached at ejwallace@pnj.com or 850-525-5087.