State Politics

Panel: Remove Confederate flag from Florida Senate seal

Per a 1972 rule in the Florida Senate, the chamber’s seal contains “a fan of the five flags that have flown over Florida” — those of Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States of America, which senators now say is historically inaccurate.
Per a 1972 rule in the Florida Senate, the chamber’s seal contains “a fan of the five flags that have flown over Florida” — those of Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States of America, which senators now say is historically inaccurate.

jCiting historical inaccuracies and a need to reflect modern values, a Senate committee unanimously recommended Thursday that the Confederate flag be removed from the Florida Senate’s official seal.

The vote came after little discussion and no opposition from the bipartisan panel. A two-thirds majority vote of the full Senate, or support from 27 of 40 members, is needed to complete the change.

The rebel flag has been in the chamber’s insignia since at least 1972 as part of “a fan of the five flags that have flown over Florida.” Including the Confederate flag in that array is historically inaccurate, said Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who said he endorsed the rule change “simply upon legal issues.”

Sixteen different flags have flown over Florida in its long history, and the state shouldn’t endorse flags of illegitimate governments, he said, referring to the Civil War rebellion of the southern states.

We can’t revise history and choose which moments in our history to forget, but we can choose what we highlight in our seal and what is just and right.

State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando

“It seems appropriate that that alone would suffice that if we’re talking about the flags that have flown over the state of Florida, we would be dealing with, I believe, the proper interpretation of the prior rule: those sovereignties that were legitimate sovereignties,” Simmons said.

But for others, the rule change embodies something more personal: a desire to rid the Senate’s insignia of a polarizing symbol that has a widespread effect, “especially [for] those of us who have African ancestry as it relates to a dark period in our history that still has a profound effect upon many of us,” said Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

Tampa Democrat Arthenia Joyner explains why she asked the Senate to change its official seal. Video by Kristen M. Clark

Joyner — with support from Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando — asked for the discussion following the racially motivated church shooting in Charleston, S.C., this summer, an attack that incited renewed backlash nationwide against the Confederate flag.

“Many of us were not aware of, or had not paid much attention to, the seal to discern which flags were included in it,” Joyner said. “Immediately upon discovering it, I felt it necessary at this time.”

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, added, “It’s time for us to have the seal be consistent with our values. We can’t revise history and choose which moments in our history to forget, but we can choose what we highlight in our seal and what is just and right.”

Gardiner, who did not attend the Senate hearing, told the Herald/Times that Joyner brought the issue to his attention and he agreed to bring it up.

“I said let’s take a look at what we have in our seal,” Gardiner said. “For me, it was more out of respect for a request from senators to take a look at this.”

Many view the flag as a symbol of racism, but its supporters have argued it’s a sign of heritage and pride for the descendants of Confederate soldiers. No one spoke Thursday in defense of keeping the Confederate flag on the Senate seal.

The other flags in the current seal: Spain, France, Great Britain and the United States.

The rule change supported by the committee essentially replaces the Confederate flag with the current state flag, while also specifying which five flags should be included in the seal — the state flag, 1513 Spanish flag, the U.S. flag, the 1564 French flag, and 1763 flag of Great Britain.

If the full Senate approves, replacing the seal would come at a yet-unknown cost, but it’s expected to be “minimal,” Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said. The icon is visible throughout the Capitol, from large bronze seals in the chamber to the lapel pins senators wear and the letterhead they write on.

“Over the next few months we will use our supplies of existing printed letterhead, business cards and other stationery and will hold off re-ordering any of those materials until the full Senate has the opportunity to consider the rule change in January,” Betta said, adding that staff is researching the cost to replace larger items like the bronze seals.

Another movement is underway to scrub any references to the Confederate flag from all public buildings in the state, including artwork and iconography in the state Capitol.

Democrats Rep. Darryl Rouson, of St. Petersburg, and Sens. Geraldine Thompson, of Orlando, and Dwight Bullard, of Cutler Bay, have filed bills for the 2016 session that would prohibit local, county or state government entities in Florida from displaying any Confederate flag or similar symbols used by the Confederacy from 1860 to 1865. House Bill 243 and Senate Bill 154 have each been referred to four committees in their respective chambers, but no hearings have been scheduled.

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