Florida Republicans want to block removal of Confederate monuments

“I’ve never been more offended by a bill,” said state Rep. Michele Rayner.

Construction workers remove the Women of the Southland monument in Jacksonville last December. | Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via AP

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature wants to block cities and counties from removing or relocating Confederate monuments, a move that has already sparked intense debates about history, racism and white supremacy.

The bills currently moving through the GOP-led Legislature are causing a backlash from Democratic lawmakers, who say the measures are deeply offensive. State Republicans have supported similar bills in recent years that haven’t passed, but this year’s effort may be gaining momentum after lawmakers have advanced bills in the House and Senate.

Several cities and counties in Florida have removed or relocated Confederate memorials in the past few years. But this latest round of legislation comes in the wake of a contentious battle in Jacksonville where the Democratic mayor of the city pushed to remove two bronze statues known as the “Women of the Southland” that includes a woman in a robe carrying a Confederate flag. The statues were first installed in 1915.

There is even a chance that Gov. Ron DeSantis could gain the power to remove local officials who violate the proposed state law, although lawmakers dropped that provision from a version that cleared a House committee on Tuesday on a party-line vote. That clause, however, remains in the Senate bill.

“I’ve never been more offended by a bill,” state Rep. Michele Rayner, a Black Democrat from St. Petersburg who pointed out that three people were killed in Jacksonville last August by a shooter who left behind a racist manifesto. “This bill is sending a message, not only to Black folks in the state of Florida but to your Black colleagues. … I don’t have enough time to express my disgust and opposition.”

Republicans backing the bill argued it would require local governments to “preserve history for all of us” and stop a “purge” of monuments.

“This bill will help to clear the air between our peoples,” said Florida Rep. Dean Black, a Jacksonville Republican and sponsor of the House bill, who contended local governments had declared “war” against historical monuments. “We should add to our history, not subtract from it.”

The House ban would apply to any statue, marker, flag or tombstone that had been placed on public property for the past 25 years. The Senate version would apply sanctions against local governments that had removed or relocated monuments after Oct. 1, 2020. Both bills do not directly mention the Confederacy but instead are written to protect any memorial that mentions “any armed conflict since settlers from other countries came to what is now the United States.”

A spokesperson for Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said Tuesday she has not taken a position on the legislation. GOP House Speaker Paul Renner has also not commented on the bill.

Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature previously voted in 2016 to replace the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith from the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The bronze statue of Smith was removed in 2021 and replaced with a statue of famed educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.

But in the past few years, Republicans and Democrats have clashed over whether to keep intact Confederate memorials and honors. DeSantis — while campaigning for president — last year criticized President Joe Biden’s administration for renaming a North Carolina U.S. Army base that had previously been named after a Confederate general.

House Republicans on Tuesday squashed attempts by Democrats to alter the legislation. Democrats tried to exclude Confederate monuments and monuments honoring slave owners from the protections included in the bill.

That last amendment triggered a back-and-forth between Black and state Rep. Ashley Gantt, a Miami Democrat, about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and whether they owned slaves. Black contended the provision against honoring slave owners was “unfriendly to history therefore unfriendly to the bill.”

Gantt retorted that if Black wanted to “use accurate language” he would say those who were enslaved “were hostages on death camps that we call plantations owned by human traffickers that we now call slave owners.”

“This amendment makes sure that we do not honor people with a participation trophy … by having a monument for them in the state of Florida when they owned human beings and they justified it,” Gantt said.

Source: Politico