Key West's Role in the Secessionist History of the United States
This certainly was not the first time that Floridians wanted to secede from the union, nor was Florida the only state that has ever wanted to, or to have successfully, seceded from the Union. Prior to the Civil War, certain states in New England had factions wanting to secede from the United States in opposition to the Federal government's condoning of slavery in the South, from where many slave-holding states chose to secede themselves following the election of Abraham Lincoln for the exact opposite reason. On January 10th, 1861, the state of Florida seceded from the United States. During that time, South Carolina and Mississippi had also seceded ahead of Florida. In 1861, Florida was one of the founding states in the south to enter into the Confederate States of America. That secession started the war between the North and the South, although Key West itself remained under the control of the Union military during and after the civil war. Only on July 25th, 1868 was the state of Florida allowed to rejoin the Union once again. Even in the new millennium, there have been moves by groups in a number of states to leave the United States for various reasons. However, one of the most intriguing secessionist movements to have occurred since the Civil War has to be Key West, Florida's move to form the Conch Republic in 1982.
Immigration Reform and the Key West Backlash
The first quarter of the 1980s saw the problem of South American illegal immigrants too serious to ignore, as undocumented Hispanics and Latinos were increasingly entering the United States through Florida. Many of these people were simply escaping the civil wars and economic woes in their own home countries. Although many international conflicts were going on at that time, then-President Ronald Reagan ordered a border control set up in the Florida mainland in the form of roadblocks and checkpoints standing in illegal immigrants' ways of entry into the U.S. mainland. The US Border Patrol was given the jurisdiction over this program, and Border Patrol agents started systematic searches of vehicles that produced a 19-mile traffic jam. This inconvenience lasted for days, and eventually earned the ire of the state as a whole, and many commercially important tourists cancelled their reservations in Florida. Meanwhile, commercial trucking and goods deliveries were also affected.
How It All Unfolded
The following days were filled with confusion and delays that prompted the Mayor of Key West to call for a City Council meeting. They decided to ask for a court injunction that would remove the road block, but the court ruled that the road block was legal. They then decided that they needed a far more effective solution to the problem. The Mayor and his Key West Council decided to do the only thing that seemed practical at the moment. He declared to news reporters that Key West would secede from the union the next day, April 23rd, 1982. Mayor Dennis Wardlow read the secession declaration on top of a pickup truck the next day. He also assumed the title of Prime Minister of the newly named and formed "Conch Republic". Among many attending the event were Federal agents who listened as the Mayor read that, as citizens of the US, they were entitled to the same, equal treatment as its mainland citizens.
War and Peace in the Conch Republic
The speech was followed by a declaration of war from the Key West Prime Minister on the United States. Then, the Key West citizens started "taking fire", throwing stale Cuban bread onto the U.S. Federal agents and US Navy and Coast Guard personnel present. Then, Conch Republic Prime Minister Dennis Wardlow surrendered to a US Navy officer, and demanded war damage remuneration funds, and one billion dollars in foreign aid from the United States. All of this was happening while almost every newspaper in the US was covering the event. It went nationwide the following day. The roadblock was lifted after a few days, and everything went back to normal. The event boosted tourism in the Key West area, and in Florida as a whole. Since then, April 23rd has been celebrated as "Independence Day" for Key West. Today, the Conch Republic banner is still on the airport terminal building of Key West, welcoming its visitors. As a tourist draw, the island also continues to issue fun Conch Republic passports and Visas.