Travelers flying in and out of Pensacola could soon see a new name on those Pensacola International Airport signs, if a proposal coming before the city council next week wins support.
Longtime civil rights leader Rev. H.K. Matthews is asking council members to rename the airport the Reubin O’Donovan Askew Pensacola International Airport, in honor of the celebrated former Florida governor and Pensacolian.
Many airports across the country commemorate significant figures, including New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
“It’s unbelievable there’s nothing notable named after him to honor his legacy,” Matthews said of Askew. “It would be fitting to fly to Pensacola into an airport named after the best statesman we’ve ever had.”
The only public facility in the area named for Askew is Interstate 110, which is designated the Reubin O’Donovan Askew Parkway. A small roadside sign marks the designation in downtown Pensacola.
Askew, who served as Florida’s governor from 1971 to 1979, died in 2014 at the age of 86. He spent more than a half century in politics, becoming the state’s first governor to serve two consecutive terms.
Askew’s enduring legacy was founded in promoting racial equality and pushing ethics reforms in what was one of the most corruption-ridden states in the Deep South in the 1970s.
Matthews, who had a close relationship with Askew on civil rights issues, cites the many pioneering and difficult reforms Askew put into action during his career of public service, noting Askew’s vehement opposition to racial segregation, efforts to increase transparency in government, and implementation of corporate tax reforms in the Sunshine State.
“I considered him one of my best friends,” Matthews said of Askew. “In the late 1960s, when I worked in downtown Pensacola, I once told then Senator Askew that he should put his name in the ring to run for governor. I told him, ‘you never know until you try!'”
Councilwoman Sherri Myers, who is sponsoring the proposed legislation, echoed Matthews’ sentiments. “I think Pensacola should be extremely proud that we produced a public figure of the caliber of Governor Askew,” said Myers.
Born in 1928, Askew was the youngest of six children of Leon Askew and Alberta O’Donovan Askew.
He graduated from Pensacola High School in 1946, served two years in the Army and, through the G.I. Bill, attended Florida State in Tallahassee, where he was student body president. In 1951, he became an Air Force officer during the Korean War. In 1956 he graduated from the University of Florida law school and would go on to start the law firm of Askew & Levin, now known as Levin Papantonio.
After two years serving as assistant solicitor for Escambia County, Askew won a seat in Florida’s House of Representatives in 1958. He served four years in the House, and eight more as a state senator, and then launched a campaign for governor.
Through his governorship, Askew became increasingly better known on the national stage, eventually becoming favored by party leaders as the Democratic pick for the presidency in 1976. In what was later considered by many observers to be a missed opportunity, Askew decided he wasn’t ready for the job. Party leaders instead tapped a fellow New South governor, Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, who would later be elected the nation’s 39th president.
In 1979, President Carter brought Askew on to serve in his cabinet, naming him United States trade representative, a position he held for two years. Askew later mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1984.
A Harvard study called him one of the century’s 10 best state leaders, along with Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.
In his first term, Askew pushed through a reformed corporate income tax for large national corporations and eased taxes on Floridians. Askew also accomplished far-reaching environmental conservation, protecting environmentally fragile lands, restricting coastal construction and blocking oceanfront casinos.
Among his most impactful accomplishments was his efforts to integrate state government and schools, starting with the Highway Patrol and school busing. He named African-Americans to state commissions and boards, and supported proposals to bus children to desegregate public schools.
After a landslide reelection in 1974, Askew appointed the first black justice of the Florida Supreme Court and the first black person since Reconstruction to head a state agency. He pushed for open government government laws, enacting the state’s celebrated Sunshine Amendment, the first time the state constitution was amended by voters.
Upon retirement, Askew later taught government and politics at every large university in the state, including at Florida State University, which named its school of public administration and policy after him. The University of Florida also named its institute of politics and society after Askew.
“I want people — especially young people — to know that Askew was a humble person and did so much to help humanity,” Matthews said. “He was a fair man. He did so much for Pensacolians and in his service to our country.”
The City Council will discuss and could take a vote on the proposal to rename the airport for Askew at its May 12 meeting. Reached Wednesday afternoon, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward said he was open to the change. “That is a fabulous idea and I would love to hear more about it,” said Hayward.
Read the proposal here: