As states across the south grapple with a renewed look at the controversial Confederate battle flag, it is useful to look back to Feb. 2, 2001. That was the day that Gov. Jeb Bush quietly retired the flag from the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee and placed it in the Museum of Florida History. Angry protesters declared his political career over. A year later, he would win re-election. A year from now, he might even have his party’s nomination for president.
In June, in the wake of a terrible act of violence — the killing of nine people in a shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C., allegedly by an individual with strong racist viewpoints, the author of a manifesto targeting blacks, Jews and Hispanics — a national push to remove the Confederate battle flag from public government sites in southern states not only gained momentum, but resulted in action.
State leaders across the south took up the debate over the prominence of the rebel flag in their states following a sudden swell of support for removing it from the State House grounds in South Carolina. South Carolina Republican State Sen. Paul Thurmond — son of longtime U.S. Senator and one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond — looked past his own ancestry and said the “time is right” to remove the symbolic flag after both Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham called for its removal. Both houses of the state legislature agreed this week — a stunning turnout in the cradle of the Confederacy.
In Mississippi, GOP House Speaker Philip Gunn agreed it was time for his state to change its flag, which includes the Confederate insignia, and in Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate banners taken down from a large monument to Confederate soldiers outside that state’s capitol building.
There are definitely pockets of resistance in Florida. Just a few days ago, Marion County commissioners voted unanimously to return the Confederate battle flag to the county’s government complex. And this Saturday morning, an “American & Southern Flag Rally” will include a parade down parts of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road, Okeechobee Blvd., State Road 7 and Southern Blvd. It is being promoted as a “peaceful and respectful” event.
But in general, in Florida, no such public debate has existed, probably because the verbal sparring took place 14 years ago. With far less fanfare, Gov. Bush removed the flag. “The governor believes that most Floridians would agree that the symbols of Florida’s past should not be displayed in a manner that may divide Floridians today,” a Bush spokeswoman said at the time. At the same time, Bush also retired the flags of the French, Spanish and British governments, all of which once controlled the state and had a place at its seat of government.
When Bush made his move, he was called “spineless” and “racist to Southern people,” and was accused of “pandering to African-Americans.” He was also repeatedly warned he would be defeated in the next election. But he stood by his decision. “I can lead by example for the rest of the state,” he said. “I have done so by embracing diversity and having no tolerance for racial hatred. My record has lost me support, but it is the right thing to do.”
In hindsight, Bush’s support did not suffer — and the move was, indeed, the right thing to do. We hope those supporters of “southern pride” take note of this today. The Confederate banner is fine for those who wish to wave it as a showing of personal pride, but as a symbol of a divisive past, it does not belong in an official government capacity.