For more than 50 years, a Confederate flag has fluttered outside the Walton County Courthouse in Florida’s Panhandle.
It’s said to be the last rebel flag outside a Florida courthouse, and its days may be numbered.
Inside, flag supporters and opponents will square off Tuesday in a pitched emotional battle featuring an ironic North-South twist: Residents in the county’s rural northern tier have a stronger sense of local history and are more fond of the flag than newcomers living in beach communities in the south.
Four county commissioners, with one member absent, will decide the flag’s fate in that courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, where pro-flag residents may pack the hall. But leaders of the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference will be there, too.
Bracketed by Alabama to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Walton County is one of the oldest counties in Florida.
For decades after the Civil War, DeFuniak Springs hosted annual reunions of the Florida Brigade of Confederate soldiers.
But today, the county may be best known as the birthplace of Seaside, the prototype of an architectural style known as New Urbanism that was the setting for a Jim Carrey movie depicting an idyllic-but-fake town, The Truman Show.
The flag has flown on the lawn of the courthouse Civil War memorial since April 1964, when conservative Senate Dixiecrats were using the filibuster in an unsuccessful effort to delay inevitable passage of President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. Both of Florida’s senators, Democrats Spessard Holland and George Smathers, voted no.
“It’s not a memorial. It was put up there in defiance of integration,” said Sheila Grimes, 61, of Santa Rosa Beach, an insurance broker. “It’s malicious. It just makes you tremble. It needs to come down.”
Grimes vividly remembers what life was like, growing up black in Walton County in the 1960s, when the Confederate flag flew outside Walton High and the school band, with black and white members, played Dixie at football games. When schools were integrated, race riots broke out and the principal took down the flag.
Danny Glidewell, a DeFuniak Springs resident, retired sheriff’s office administrator and long-time sports coach and referee, defended the flag in a Sunday opinion piece in the Northwest Florida Daily News.
“The flag’s removal would hurt and deeply offend those who see the memorial and the flag as a symbol of the courage and honor exhibited by their ancestors,” he wrote. “Hundreds of Walton County citizens have a connection to the flag and want it to remain in place. So, removal would further divide us and cause new hard feelings and pain.”
Flag opponents have been trying to remove the flag since 2002, but their cause gained a lot of momentum after last month’s shooting massacre at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Rebel flags soon vanished from capitols in South Carolina and Alabama, and nearby Pensacola removed its flag.
“I’m hopeful,” says Daniel Uhlfelder, a lawyer and 14-year resident who helped launch an online petition and Facebook page to remove the flag. “It’s a divisive symbol.”
The Facebook page features racial epithets from a supporter of the flag, and evidence of the north-south split.
“You don’t even live in the north end,” reads one post by Chaz Shaw, a 2000 Walton High graduate. “Worry about your end not ours.”
Walton County’s two Republican state legislators are divided on the issue: Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville insists that it come down, and Rep. Brad Drake of Eucheeanna says it must stay.
“If someone says they’re going to take down a valued piece of American history, I’m not going to agree with that,” said Drake, who called the flag a tribute to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, not a symbol of racial hatred. “Regardless of the consequences, it’s a valid piece of American history.”
Gaetz called the flag a symbol of racial divisiveness.
“Walton County is not the same place it was 51 years ago,” Gaetz said. “That flag was placed there not in reverence to Confederate war veterans, but as a symbol of resistance to civil rights. It belongs in a museum, not on a flagpole.”
The county commission meets at 9 a.m. (CDT) Tuesday. Video of the meeting will be streamed live at co.walton.fl.us.
The agenda includes purchases of a new ice machine and mobile satellite radio telephone for hurricanes, and “continued discussion of the Confederate battle flag on the courthouse lawn.”
All four voting commissioners are Republicans. Three live on the county’s north side.
“There’s a lot of pressure on them,” says Jim Anders, a long-time Walton County resident, vice-chairman of the county Republican Party and a flag opponent. “I’m from the Panhandle and I do understand our heritage, but it needs to be taken down.”