Our national and local conversation about whether or not to remove monuments, symbols, memorials, plaques and names celebrating the Confederacy is tough. Really tough. It is at once emotional and academic, local and national, historic and contemporary, inflammatory and aspirational, and, yes, Black and White. So much of what we struggle with as a Southern community is wrapped up in this conversation.
Regardless of where any of us lands on the “take-them-down” spectrum, consider how extraordinary it was to wake up on June 9 to discover the statue commemorating Floridians who fought for the Confederacy — centrally located in Jacksonville’s pre-eminent public square for over 100 years — had vanished overnight.
Although it has been just over a month, it seems a lifetime has passed since Mayor Lenny Curry ordered the statue’s removal. In these four short weeks, the City of Jacksonville has announced that a total of 11 monuments and markers that celebrate the Confederacy – two additional statues and eight historical markers – will come down. And in a 7-0 decision, the Duval County School Board voted to begin a process to rename all schools named for Confederate leaders.
The local effort to examine all symbols of White supremacy, including those that have been used to define “Jacksonville” since its incorporation in 1832, is growing fast.
Truth to tell, the effort to place Confederate monuments and memorials in the public square began decades after the end of the Civil War. Why? Because memorials that celebrate the Confederacy were viewed at the time of their establishment as effective tools to promote and justify Jim Crow segregation laws in the South. The American Historical Association states that the erection of Confederate monuments in the early twentieth century was “part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement [of Blacks] across the South.” And in our lifetime, according to Take It Down (www.takeitdown.org), “we have spent more than $40 million to preserve these structures built as monuments to White supremacy.” “And,” according to the Take It Down website, these memorials “are cluttered all over this great land, even in states that did not exist in the 1860s.” Indeed, a Confederate monument can today be found in each of the 50 states.
Those who argue for the removal of the Confederate monuments claim that such monuments were controversial from the moment they were erected.
Confederate monuments are deeply personal for Earl Johnson, Jr. founder of Take It Down. His father, Earl Johnson, Sr. served as an attorney to Martin Luther King, Jr. The younger Johnson remembers vivid conversations around the kitchen table both during the Civil Rights Movement and later when his father became one of the architects of Jacksonville’s consolidation and a leader on our City Council.
Johnson, who is remembered as the first African-American lifeguard at the Beaches, was recently asked to speak at a rally in Jacksonville Beach which took place just a few days before the Hemming Park Confederate statue came down. He spoke passionately about the costs of erecting and maintaining the monuments – costs borne by African-Americans as well as by White supremacists—and the fact that they had been dedicated as memorials to enemy combatants on public land. By the time he finished speaking, the multi-generational audience spontaneously began to chant, “Take it down! Take it down!”
“I went straight home from that rally and started www.takeitdown.org, the only organization I know of that is dedicated to the removal of all Confederate structures on all American public lands,” says Johnson. By the end of its first week, Take It Down would boast over 5,000 members representing all 50 states as well as countries from all over the planet.
“The idea of these symbols of White supremacy and racial hatred has always stuck in my craw,” says Johnson. “I remember what they actually meant, that they weren’t erected for any historical reason, but rather as a reminder to Black people that there were still plenty of Confederate sympathizers, and they were going to relegate Black people to second class citizenship. In fact, we all have been moved, just in these last few weeks, to face the harsh reality that every African-American has, in some respect, experienced racial injustice because of these things.”
Our local story has its roots in a national event. In August 2017, a “Unite the Right” rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. The event turned deadly. Protesters against the planned removal and counter-protesters wanting the Lee statue removed physically clashed; one protester drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters killing one woman and injuring 34 people. Less remembered are two police officers who died in a helicopter crash connected to the event.
Partly in response to this Charlottesville tragedy, and partly to try to understand our local conversation about the removal of Confederate memorials, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and other community stakeholders in early 2018 invited Northeast Floridians to “participate in small group discussions [to] not only deliberate the presence and influence of Confederate monuments but also discuss how public space is used to define the city.” The resulting report was called How Should We Convey the History of Jacksonville? Monuments, Parks and People.
Among other things, the conversations yielded these four recommendations:
1. Make public parks welcoming for all people;
2. Prepare a comprehensive Jacksonville history and provide educational curricula;
3. Promote collaborative museum endeavors; and
4. Continue to hold public dialogue and civil discourse events.
The report was widely distributed, and pubic dialogue continued in a variety of formats to include a consistent presence at almost all City Council meetings from then until now. You can read the reports here:
In spite of the public’s energetic engagement around the Confederate monument issue, most local political leaders, most notably those in the mayor’s office, were demonstrably reluctant to talk about monuments. Surprisingly, Mayor Curry ordered the removal of the Confederate monument in Hemming Park. On that same day, he marched with local police, Jaguars football players, people representing Black Lives Matter, and regular citizens, all gathered to highlight and denounce police brutality.
At the same time, skeptics charged the Mayor’s actions were more a matter of pandering to the National Football League or adjusting how others might see us when the City hosts the Republican National Convention.
Regardless, there is an energetic local movement to eradicate monuments. Admittedly, and absent more traditional, institutional leadership, this local movement is comprised of a diffuse, broad and diverse range of organizations including the Equal Justice Initiative, the Jacksonville Women’s March, the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, Take ‘Em Down Jax, and Yellow House.
“The model of organizing in Take ‘Em Down Jax came out of New Orleans – Take ‘Em Down New Orleans – which was really one of the early groups to fairly dramatically begin to take their monuments down,” says Yellow House Founder, Hope McMath. “That group was borne of radical actors, writers and poets, and visual artists of all kinds. I felt very strongly that the Take ‘Em Down movement held a very natural space for our art and artists to come together, too.”
Whereas Johnson’s group — takeitdown.org — is specifically focused on removing Confederate structures from the nation’s public lands, Take ‘Em Down Jax is dedicated to the removal of monuments to White supremacy broadly, “not just the Confederates,” as McMath likes to say, “but also to the things we see like the Andrew Jackson statue, his image on the City’s seal, the names on schools and streets, manifestations of the KKK and Jim Crow: it is important to take down symbols of oppression and [White] supremacy.”
On this point, I asked McMath: Why is this important? Aren’t there bigger, more noble aims than changing the names of high schools? As a friend of mine said, “So if the statue comes down and it’s not Lee High School anymore, are more people going to vote? Are fewer people going to be disenfranchised, left out in the cold?” So, in other words, what transformational difference does removing Confederate monuments make?
McMath argues that symbols hold significant meaning. She notes that the statue in Hemming Park was never a real person with a real name to begin with. It was mostly an idea, a symbol, one used to oppress Black people. “But Take ‘Em Down has never said these monuments are more important than investing in Jacksonville’s neighborhoods, taking care of our schools, ensuring access to healthcare—especially now–and voting rights. In fact, comparatively speaking, removing the statues is easy work, low hanging fruit. But,” McMath argues, “if we can’t do that, then we cannot do the systemic things. You can see these statues, and people – on both sides – are watching. So we address the symbols because symbols matter.”
But at some point, elected City leaders must be willing to engage with citizens: the City has said 11 monuments will be removed. How will this happen? What is the timeline? Where will they go? Who will have access to them, and for what purposes? Or will they be destroyed? Where is the Hemming Park statue now? Who gets to decide these things? Will there be a process, like the Jessie Ball duPont Fund implemented, to engage the people?
And it’s not just the monuments. As McMath states, “We are not invested in the monuments to the exclusion of” systemic change. But with the Republican National Convention poised to roll into town, as Jacksonville is among the hottest of national hot spots for the COVID-19 virus, and as calls to put teachers and children together in school buildings for 5 days of scheduled instruction grow louder and more insistent, we ought to all be asking: what is the plan for dealing with out most pressing challenges?