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What went down at Miami’s federal courthouse

Although soon it will be just another academic building, Miami’s federal courthouse was once a hotbed of controversial trials, with mobsters, drug runners, and avant garde artists gracing its courtrooms.

From its opening in 1933, the David W. Dyer Federal Courthouse has been a testament to Miami’s complex and illicit history. Earlier this month Miami Dade College snagged the nationally recognized historic building to add to its portfolio of iconic real estate — it also owns the Freedom Tower and Tower Theater.

The grand Neoclassical structure will soon be used as an academic and civic building after a decade of lying vacant as downtown boomed around it.

“Some of the most important federal cases were held there,” says Dr. Paul George, resident historian at HistoryMiami.

Burning down the house

Miami’s early days as a tropical playground for northern mafia bosses came to light with the Kefauver hearings, a national investigation into organized crime that unfolded in the courthouse and on TV screens nationwide.

The committee, led by Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, launched its investigation in Miami in 1950 and found evidence of gambling everywhere, from restaurants to cigar stands — much of it with the full knowledge of local law enforcement… and the Florida governor, Fuller Warren.

“It was very important to put a flashlight on that type of crime in the area, it pushed organized crime activities to the forefront. Before it was subterranean,” George says.

Perhaps the most scandalous thing uncovered was the collusion between Broward County’s longest running sheriff, Walter Clark, and Meyer Lansky, a notorious racketeer from New York.

 

In court, Clark insisted that as a tourist city, Miami should give tourists what they want — even if it was illegal. He was removed from office.

“Law officials are more careful in what they say now,” he adds. “That’s probably one way [the city] has changed. But, it’s still kind of a crazy place, as we all know.”

 

In 1956, in one of the craziest moments of the Lansky saga in Miami, U.S. Attorney E. David Rosen burned $15,000 worth of confiscated marijuana in the Courthouse basement. (That’s $133,000 worth of pot if this happened today. All up in smoke.)

 

Before the seven-second delay

In 1969, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a bud of Jack Kerouac, brought all his anguished poet wrath down on the City of Miami after city officials censored him at a reading at the Miami Marine Stadium.

He was reading “Kral Majales,” a poem that bashes both communism and capitalism, when his microphone was suddenly cut off. Manny Costa, the city manager, interrupted Ginsberg’s reading, claiming it was obscene.

 

Tobias Simon, who represented Ginsberg, argued that the City of Miami violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Gisnberg won that battle, with Judge C. Clyde Atkins ruling he should get another reading — free of charge to the public.

“The moment they turned off the microphone, I was comparing the police bureaucracy in Prague to Miami, they are both so repressive,” says Ginsberg during an interview. “It’s not all dirty, it’s just in the eyes of the beholder. The people who turned off the microphone have a sex fiendish-nish of their own, they’re preoccupied with dirty words. And it’s their dirtiness that’s a concern here. Don’t lay it down on me. I’m just writing what’s going on in my mind.”

Blazing a trail

From his perch at the federal courthouse, Judge Atkins became a force of change. In Pate vs. Dade County School Board in 1970, he ruled in favor of a landmark school desegregation plan, bringing South Florida into line with a civil rights movement that was sweeping the country at the time.

And when the Pope came to Miami in 1987, the judge stood up against city efforts to sweep anything unsightly out of sight — namely, the homeless.

“The pope came down Biscayne Boulevard to the cultural center where HistoryMiami is and met Reagan at Vizcaya. So the city wanted to clean the streets of homeless. But, Atkins ruled there had to be a reservation area for them. That came out of that courthouse.”

Now that the federal courthouse doors will be open again — they’ve been closed for a decade due to mold — George hopes to conduct tours that will relive the zany and historic moments that put the courthouse on a national stage.