Confederate monument at Florida Capitol sparks debate after Charlottesville

A monument honoring slain Confederate soldiers stands on the grounds of the state Capitol Complex in Tallahassee. Some politicians want the monument removed in the wake of the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, on Aug. 11-12.
A monument honoring slain Confederate soldiers stands on the grounds of the state Capitol Complex in Tallahassee. Some politicians want the monument removed in the wake of the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, on Aug. 11-12. kclark@miamiherald.com

A monument honoring slain Confederate soldiers in front of Florida’s Old Capitol is the latest subject of debate by politicians seeking to act against racism in response to a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.

Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Florida’s capital city and a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, called on Gov. Rick Scott to remove the monument from the Capitol grounds, where similar memorials honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., veterans and firefighters, among others.

“In the wake of Charlottesville, people all around the country are grappling with how we deal with our nation’s history and its uglier elements, including slavery, racism and the Confederacy. Floridians must be a part of this work because our own history is checkered,” Gillum, who is black, said in a campaign statement Wednesday.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democratic candidate for governor. Miami Herald file photo

“We owe it to our children and grandchildren to acknowledge that while we cannot change history, we do not have to glorify its ugliest moments with displays on public lands,” he said. “And most certainly not in our state’s capital, and not in front of our historic state house. This weekend’s tragedy calls all decent people to act with courage, and I hope the governor will do so.”

Scott spokesman John Tupps would not comment about the possibility of removing the monument, stating only: “We have received the Gillum campaign’s press release.”

Earlier Wednesday, the governor again condemned the rallies in Charlottesville, calling them “disgusting.”

“There’s no place in our country for racism, bigotry, the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists. There’s no moral equivalency between the two sides,” Scott said.

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — which drew neo-Nazis and white nationalists, who clashed with counterprotesters — was sparked by efforts to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The weekend’s events prompted a national conversation on whether symbols of the Confederacy should be removed, and many monuments and statues have started to come down across the country.

Protesters celebrate after pulling down a Confederate statue in Durham, N.C. Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Gov. Roy Cooper criticized the action, tweeting that “the racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable but there is a better way t

Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, toppled a monument to Confederate veterans on Monday night, Baltimore officials moved quickly and quietly to remove Confederate monuments in the city overnight Tuesday, and on Wednesday, a stone monument commemorating Confederate veterans at a Los Angeles cemetery was also removed, McClatchy DC reported.

RELATED: “Charlottesville questions dog Jack Latvala at launch of gubernatorial campaign”

Florida’s monument — described as a “Civil War marble obelisk” by the state Department of Management Services, which oversees the Capitol Complex — sits prominently on a lawn in front of the Old Capitol along Monroe Street, a main thoroughfare in Tallahassee.

On Wednesday afternoon, an unmanned patrol car was parked on the public sidewalk nearby. FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger told the Herald/Times that Capitol Police made the decision as a deterrent measure “to prevent vandalism” in the wake of “a national event.”

capitol confederate monument 4
An unmanned patrol car from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement sits parked near a monument honoring slain Confederate soldiers at the state Capitol Complex in Tallahassee on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. Some politicians want the monument removed in the wake of the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend. Kristen M. Clark kclark@miamiherald.com

The monument can be easily overlooked because it does not specifically reference the Confederacy.

It reads: “To rescue from oblivion and perpetuate in the memory of succeeding generations the heroic patriotism of the men of Leon County who perished in the Civil War of 1861-1865, this monument is raised by their country women.” Florida fought on the side of the Confederacy after state leaders voted to secede from the Union in January 1861.

It’s unclear what direct authority the governor would have over the monument’s location. State law requires that “construction and placement of a monument” has to be “authorized by general law,” giving the Legislature oversight over which monuments sit on the Capitol grounds.

Corcoran floor
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R- Land O’Lakes. Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

Debates over Confederate symbols are fresh for Florida lawmakers, who in recent years have voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Senate’s official seal and to remove a statue of a Confederate general that represents Florida in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.

The House voted last spring to approve a slavery memorial on the Capitol grounds, but the measure died in the Senate — and sparked controversy when one senator made racially insensitive remarks in explaining why he blocked the proposal.

RELATED: “Wasserman Schultz says Confederate general shouldn’t stand for Florida in U.S. Capitol”

But when asked generally about the removal of Confederate symbols in the wake of Charlottesville, House Speaker Richard Corcoran — a Land O’Lakes Republican who might also run for governor — told reporters Tuesday night: “The evil that exists in people’s hearts existed before a statue, after a statue, during a statue. What we ought to do is focus our attention on figuring out what it is that has people pursue that kind of a path in life, and address it.”

“That’s what we ought to be doing. What was more important, the Civil Rights Act of the ’60s or removing some sort of statue or something?” he said.

At that same event — a GOP barbecue event in Monticello, near Tallahassee — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also opposed removing Confederate statues. They are important to understanding our history, “warts and all, to learn from it and get better and stronger every day,” said Putnam, considered the leading GOP candidate for governor.

“I’m more focused on eradicating hate today than eradicating the history of yesteryear. It’s the white supremacists and the KKK who caused those problems — not a piece of granite marble. We need to focus on eradicating hate now, coming together as a nation and being stronger.”

Putnam was asked if he would support removal of the Confederate monument on the Capitol grounds. He said he was not aware of its existence.

“As much as I love history, I’ve never noticed it. Where is it? What is it?” he asked a reporter.

RELATED: “Hollywood signals it will move forward with changing Confederate street names”

Herald/Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

Related stories from Miami Herald