Debate Over Confederate Memorials Continues in Florida

(CN) – The debate over Confederate memorials continues in Florida and this time the battleground is the Florida Legislature.

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue have filed bills seeking a statewide policy on how to deal with the issue.

House Bill 235 aims to remove all Confederate monuments and markers from public land. Two bills in the state Senate and House push for an end to state holidays commemorating the birthdays of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, and the Confederate Memorial Day holiday.

Florida was the third state to join the Confederacy and the state’s landscape is dotted with Confederate monuments, including a South Florida street named after an early leader of the Klu Klux Klan, and a Confederate flag flying over a county courthouse in the Florida panhandle.

Last year, after the violent Charlottesville protests over a Confederate memorial prompted a national dialogue on the issue, several Florida cities and counties held passionate government meetings and raucous protests.

In Hillsborough County, commissioners removed a statue honoring Confederate veterans on the grounds of an old courthouse. In Jacksonville, the city council president floated a proposal to remove several statues in city parks, but a deeply-divided public stymied the plan.

On Monday, dozens of protesters showed up to Confederate Park demanding removal. Voters in Walton County, located in the state’s panhandle, will decide the fate of the county courthouse’s confederate flag in a referendum this November.

Not all legislators want the state to move away from its Confederate past. State Rep. Jay Fant introduced legislation to prohibit the removal or damage to memorials commemorating veterans of all American-related wars from the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585 to Operation Iraqi Freedom. That includes the Civil War.

“These memorials tell us how we got to where we are now,” Fant told Courthouse News by phone. “I would hate to see removal or damage to these parts of our history.”

Fant, who is running for Florida attorney general this year, said he introduced the bill as a “political counter-balance” to last year’s rush to remove statues and plaques after the Charlottesville protests.

Even liberal South Florida found itself embroiled in the debate.

Two years ago, Wendy King, a member of the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County, joined a growing movement in the city of Hollywood, Fla. to change the names of streets named after Confederate generals. Lee, Hood and Forrest Streets run through some majority-black neighborhoods. King said she often heard the phrase “heritage, not hate” at city commission meetings and protests.

“It is hate,” she said. “You’re honoring people who were traitors to the country and enslaved, killed and raped people of color.”

Despite the city’s left-leaning politics, Hollywood city commissioners dithered on changing the streets’ names until several liberal groups began staging protests.

“It’s been a long two years to try and get those names changed,” King said. “We thought it was a more progressive area, but it’s not.”

King described one protest in which 50 pro-Confederate counter-protesters showed up armed and yelled racial epithets, directing some at a state representative. That representative, Shevrin Jones, filed the proposed law that would remove Confederate symbols from public land statewide.

Rep. Joe Geller, who co-sponsored the bill, also became involved in the Hollywood controversy.

“By far, the worst is a street named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a leader of the Klu Klux Klan,” Geller said. “To expect someone to live on a street named for a leader of the Klu Klux Klan — this is like being asked to live on Hitler Street.”

Another colleague in the Florida house, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, filed a similar bill to eliminate holidays honoring Confederate generals. HB 277 would erase Confederate Memorial Day and the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis from the list of legal holidays.

Although the holidays are not officially observed, Moskowitz said the issue is still significant.

“At the end of the day, this is part of a dialogue that is happening all over America,” he said. “It started with removing the Confederate flag on the state house. There should be no state sponsorship of the Confederate movement.”

With the Florida legislative session at the halfway point, and the bills not yet reaching committee, it is doubtful they will pass this session.

However, another bill concerning memorials has advanced.

Last week, the Florida House approved a monument recognizing the “injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States” that would stand on capitol grounds.

“Just behind us, there were slaves in 1845 that helped construct and build the old capitol, as we call it,” said Rep. Kionne McGhee in an emotional speech on the House floor. “Slaves cleared the fields, fought dangerous animals, filled swamps and died all because they wanted to see a better tomorrow.”

The measure passed unanimously.

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