Even before he became a larger-than-life attorney and celebrity, Fredric G. Levin did not shy away from a challenge; and that is what he faced in 1958 when he befriended, George Starke, the first Black student to attend the University of Florida. Both had enrolled in their first semester of law school, but UF had only recently become racially integrated. No one knew what to expect and initially Starke was escorted to school by two U.S. marshals.
“My classmates didn’t really speak to me at first,” Starke said. “My good friends were ostracized for associating with me.”
Levin was also shunned for befriending Starke, but they remained close. They studied together, sat next to each other in class and tried to be normal students. Levin had also faced discrimination at times because he was Jewish.
“We just happened to hit it off,” Starke said. “He and I shared similar experiences during the course of our time at Florida. We had difficulty finding a mentor; we were the last two to do so, and the mentor was ostracized for associating with us.”
For the first part of the semester each time Starke entered a classroom or opened his mouth to speak, other students mockingly shuffled their feet.
“They shuffled him, 330 people,” Levin said. “And the teachers were no help, either. Eventually, they shuffled me; George because he was black, me because I was stupid.”
Eventually the studying paid off and Fred Levin became first in his class. Starke was also a committed a student and slowly he started to gain acceptance from his classmates with some help from his friendship with Levin.
“That was my first major accomplishment,” Levin said. “The other students started to come around and we found out that the true racists in the class were only a handful.”
Starke said knew he had been accepted on the day when he raised a point in class and students began stomping their feet. Back then, if a student raised a good point in class, other students would show their appreciation by stomping.
“It was a good sign,” Starke said. “But in those days, people in the South, there was excitement about what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement. There were no incidents here, but in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama there were incidents.”
Still, Levin said the law faculty and staff at UF made things hard on Starke. One law professor, Levin recalled, failed Starke for being five minutes late to an exam after they had been up studying all night. After three semesters, Starke decided the pressure was too much and he left UF. He went on to become a successful banker and energy consultant, but throughout the years of work and family he and Levin remained friends.
In fact decades later, in 1999, Levin asked the UF law school to find his longtime friend Starke, so he could be there to see the school become the Fredric G. Levin School of Law. Starke was also there in March, 2019, when UF honored Levin’s then $10 Million donation with a 20th Anniversary celebration at the law school.
The two trailblazers remained friends until Fred Levin recently passed January 12, 2021, but their friendship and dedication to civil rights remains an inspiration to others.