As a preacher, teacher, lecturer, and consummate spokesman for civil and human rights, Rev. R.N. Gooden made a great impact on the Tallahassee community. He was forceful in ensuring that people were treated with respect and dignity. The May 28, 2002, edition of the Tallahassee Democrat quoted him as saying he was drawn to preach, to help “end the suffering for my people,” and he “wanted to play some role in their deliverance and make it better for them.” “It burned in me whenever I saw anyone mistreated,” he said. “I got in the ministry and really got in the business of right and wrong.” Gooden certainly played a major role in making conditions better for people in Tallahassee and throughout North Florida. He served as State Field Director for the Florida Conference of NAACP Branches (1972-1975), as Executive Secretary, First Vice President and Youth Council Chairman of the Tallahassee Branch of the NAACP and served for 27 years as the President of both the Florida and Tallahassee chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1975 until his death in 2002. He pastored St. Mary’s Primitive Baptist Church at 454 West Call Street for more than 41 years from 1961-2002. He also served as a prominent member of the SCLC’s national board of directors. He advocated against poverty and was a founder of SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket Initiative, which sought to create more equal employment opportunities in Florida’s capital city.
In the 1960s, he marched along with the Rev. C.K. Steele (national executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to ensure voting rights for blacks, helped death row prisoners and worked to eradicate slums, ultimately resulting in the building of low-income housing in Tallahassee. His fight for access to the ballot box extended from participating in the Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) voting rights march of 1965 alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to leading a march from Quincy (Florida) to the state capitol alongside Steele to protest the ways blacks were denied access to voter registration books. The registration books were housed in private stores. After a meeting with Governor Reubin O’D. Askew, promises were made to satisfy the demands. “I believe that through the work of the NAACP and SCLC, blacks received more respect and recognition for their achievements in Tallahassee,” Gooden said. In the 1960s and 1970s, he traveled from Key West to Gainesville to Apalachicola organizing civil rights demonstrations.
In 1963, Gooden, along with the Revs. Steele, and Dan Speed, Father David Brooks and Rev. Dr. James Hudson demanded that black cashiers be hired for a Tallahassee Winn-Dixie store within one week, which was then located in a predominantly black area. When store management ignored their request, the ministers initiated a boycott, and within two weeks, business had dwindled more than 60%. As the boycott continued, local civil rights activists, including Mrs. Laura Dixie picketed the store. Daily, the ministers and picketers faced harassment from local whites who wanted to stymie the boycott’s success. After business came to a virtual standstill, management agreed to the demands and hired the store’s first black cashier.
In the 1970s, he fought against discriminatory hiring practices in Leon County Schools, the Tallahassee Police Department and in city government. His application of pressure on school district officials to hire blacks led to the promotion of Devurn Glenn as the first African-American Assistant Superintendent of Schools (for Personnel) – the highest ranking black administrator in the district’s history. He successfully advocated against the closing of Bond Elementary School during this time and founded and served as spokesman of the Lincoln Community Neighborhood Improvement Association of Tallahassee, Florida, Inc. He worked tirelessly alongside the Rev. H.K. Matthews and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (National President of SCLC) during the tumultuous Pensacola Civil Rights struggle of 1975. In the 1980s, he lobbied for increased enforcement in Frenchtown, fairer practices for minority businesses, the hiring of black school system administrators and more media coverage of blacks. After discovering a dead spider in a bottle of soda pop at an area Winn-Dixie, he led a boycott of the chain. In the 1990s, he successfully asked the Florida Legislature to remove the confederate flag symbol from the Florida Capitol Plaza display, decried police shootings, the harassment of black teachers and insurance company threats to drop coverage of black churches. In the first years of the new century, he fought against the elimination of affirmative action in state hiring practices, racially uneven prosecutions in Leon County, and the firing of a Shoney’s Inn housekeeper.
He led, organized or participated in many of the major events of the Tallahassee civil rights movement: a voting rights march from Marianna to Tallahassee; vigils for Death Row prisoners Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, who had been wrongfully convicted of murder in 1963 (after being incarcerated for 12 years, pressure from Gooden and others led to a pardon for the men in 1975); the effort to build Ebony Gardens low-income housing development and a Tallahassee garbage workers strike. He was critical of Police Chief Robert Maige, City Manager Dan Kleman and School Superintendents Ned Lovell and Ed Fenn in ultimately successful efforts to get more black police officers, more black administrators, and more black school principals. But he also answered late-night calls and street-corner pleas to help individual victims of injustice; teenaged black girls who had been raped, black secretaries who had been sexually harassed, a black football player who had been slapped by his coach, a black man beat by police during an accident investigation.
“My philosophy was ‘go after the enemy,’ which is the other side of goodness and righteousness,” said Gooden. “Wherever there was an opportunity to fight the enemy, I felt I had to be there.”
Gooden received many awards and honors, including: The Valuable Service Award; Frontier’s International Civic Award; Political Action Award; Florida State Field Director, NAACP Award (Volusia County Branch) for Service, 2000 and 2002; The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Major Award for Human Rights; the Outstanding Leadership Award of the National Primitive Baptist Convention; the March 2002 State of Florida House Resolution No. 9085; and the Board of County Commissioners Proclamation declaring January 20, 2002 as Elder R.N. Gooden’s Day. On February 12, 2008, in recognition of Gooden’s contributions to civil rights, the Leon County School Board voted to rename the former Wesson Elementary School on the city’s Southside as the R.N. Gooden/Nancy Russell Center at Wesson. The building was formally dedicated on March 21, 2008. In 2003, he was recognized with a profile in Tallahassee Community College’s African-American History Calendar and in 2013, he was honored with a footprint in the Tallahassee-Leon County Civil Rights Heritage Walk.
Likewise, his affiliations and memberships were numerous, and include adjunct instructor in theology at Florida State University; local president for the Leon County Southern Christian Leadership Conference; past Bible Expositor for the Florida State Primitive Baptist Convention; advisor to the National Primitive Baptist Discipline Revision Committee; member of Florida A&M University’s Board of Campus Ministry; and Seminary instructor for the Ministerial Alliances of Leon County, Florida, and Thomasville, Georgia. Gooden’s commitment to service was strong, and in addition to the many services performed in the Tallahassee community, he served his country in the United States Air Force.
Gooden was the proud father of five sons, Rev. Dr. Vaughn Wesley Williams, Sr. (1949-1997), Rev. Dr. Victor Ewing Gooden, Raleigh Noble Gooden, Jr., Raheen Williams, and Adam Reeves.
After more than five decades of selfless service to others, persistent civil rights activism, and strong religious and human rights leadership, Rev. R.N. Gooden died in his Tallahassee home of prostate cancer, on May 26, 2002. He was buried in Milton Cemetery-Keyser Street in Milton, Florida, next to his mother and father.