Op-Ed

Honor U.S. veterans, not the Confederates

The Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame was established in recent years to honor some of the best of our nation’s military veterans — courageous citizens who served, fought and sacrificed to keep us safe and free.

But there’s a disturbing and increasing prospect that some of our state leaders in the legislative and executive branches are poised to reignite the passions from the Civil War today. That’s why it would be a mistake to induct Confederate soldiers into our state Veterans’ Hall of Fame. It is the wrong place, wrong time — and it would send the wrong kind of message in 2015.

Now is the time when we should continue to unite our state and our country. Now is when we should be honoring diverse veterans for their selfless service in defending our great nation, not soldiers who fought against it.

The lingering question confronting Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet — and the Florida Legislature — is whether to induct three Florida men who served the Confederacy in the Civil War: David Lang, Samuel Pasco and Edward Perry. Lang helped found what is now the Florida National Guard. Pasco later was a U.S. senator, and Pasco County is named after him. Perry was a Florida governor.

All three clearly moved on after serving the Confederacy, to their credit and the state’s benefit, and had distinguished careers in Florida. They surely deserve to be remembered for their contributions to our state, but not in the Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

More than 1.5 million veterans live in Florida — the third largest population of vets after California and Texas. Wartime veterans today account for some 1.2 million veterans in Florida. These brave men and women fought for the United States of America. They put their lives on the line every day to protect our country, our freedom and our very way of life.

Confederate soldiers fought against the United States. They fought for states denying freedom to hundreds of thousands of slaves.

The Civil War was a dark period in American and Florida history. President Abraham Lincoln pledged to keep slavery out of territories that were not yet states. Florida was among the states to secede from the Union over that anti-slavery policy.

Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs officials say the three Confederate nominees do not qualify as veterans under federal and state law, because they didn’t serve in the U.S. military. But the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group whose ancestors fought against the Union, disagrees.

This should not come down to what constitutes a veteran. The real and larger issues are what the Veterans’ Hall of Fame represents — and what do we stand for in Florida?

The Hall should celebrate the finest Floridians who served the United States through military service. We should be honoring those veterans who exemplify what America stands for, not what the Confederate States of America represented.

Gov. Jeb Bush understood this when, in 2001, he had the Confederate flag that had long flown over the state Capitol finally taken down. He knew that the Confederate flag, unlike the American flag, does not represent all of us — and it should be history: a part of our past.

The Civil War ended 150 years ago. The Union was preserved, slavery was abolished and the nation slowly rebuilt. Florida rejoined the United States. We should surely remember and study that history — but it would be wrong to honor it in this misguided way.

Honoring Confederate veterans in Florida’s Capitol today would be divisive — and would reignite issues that helped tear apart our country in the Civil War.

Instead, let’s show our solidarity as a nation and state, support our soldiers and honor our U.S. veterans. They are the real heroes for all of us.

Adora Obi Nweze is president of NAACP Florida State Conference and Miami-Dade Branch. Oliver Gilbert is the mayor of Miami Gardens.

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