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Many Floridians of note deserve U.S. Capitol honor

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Florida had been a state for less than a century when it came time to honor famous citizens with two statues at the U.S. Capitol, and there were few plausible candidates. Dr. John Gorrie, the physician who invented mechanical refrigeration – imagine modern Florida without it – was an outstanding choice. But from today’s perspective, Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith is a head-scratcher.

Let 2016 be the year the Legislature finally retires him.

Smith’s historical distinction was to command Rebel forces west of the Mississippi for the final two years of the Civil War and to surrender the last major Confederate command. But, as state Sen. John Legg has framed the issue, “He just did not shape Florida history.”

Indeed, he had nothing to do with Florida after leaving to attend West Point. However, Florida culture and politics were still steeped in the so-called Lost Cause when Smith was selected in the 1920s. If Smith wasn’t exactly on a par with Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, he would just have to do.

Lutz Republican Legg is sponsoring legislation, SB310, to remove Smith’s statue and select another notable person. The first part will be the easier.

A potential trouble with the bill and its companion, HB 141, is that it would be up to the Ad Hoc Committee of the Great Floridians Program and the Department of State to recommend a single candidate to the Legislature.

The lists of “Great Floridians” chosen since Rick Scott became governor have been rather long on athletes and included at least two persons who never lived in Florida: Walt Disney and the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Last year brought Alto Adams Sr., who may have earned distinction as a cattle rancher but not as a Supreme Court justice.

The final choice of another Floridian for a Capitol statue should be left to the Legislature, where the process would be more transparent, and the bill should call for more than just one nomination from the committee.

That will be the harder part of the process, as there’s no shortage of plausible candidates.

Former Govs. LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew come immediately to mind. Collins kept Florida peaceful after the U.S. Supreme Court called for school desegregation, became the first Deep South governor to declare segregation in conflict with the constitution and Christianity, and as the first director of the new federal Community Relations Service helped avert a second bloodbath at Selma, Ala. Askew, his disciple, presided over Florida’s most politically progressive era and, among other things, appointed the South’s first African-American Supreme Court justice.

Something worth keeping in mind, however, is that no state has ever commemorated the civil rights revolution with a full-bodied statue at the Capitol of any native son or daughter, black or white. That’s a conspicuous oversight. The late Rosa Parks, whose defiance of segregation led to the Montgomery bus boycott, is in Statuary Hall by act of Congress. It was dedicated, ironically, on the same day of the U.S. Supreme Court argument that led to John Roberts fulfilling his long-held ambition to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

Florida’s history boasts no fewer than five prominent African-Americans who would be deserving additions to Statuary Hall. In alphabetical order, they are:

  • Mary McLeod Bethune, the civil rights activist and educator who merged the school she founded into what is now Bethune-Cookman College at Daytona Beach, founded the National Conference of Negro Women, and was an adviser to three presidents, most notably as Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s director of Negro affairs in the National Youth Administration.
  • Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist and folklorist who grew up in Florida and is best remembered for her role in the Harlem Renaissance and her book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson, one of the earliest civil rights activists, born in Jacksonville in 1871, who held two ambassadorships under President Theodore Roosevelt, served as chief executive of the NAACP, and became the first African-American professor at New York University. He wrote the civil rights anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
  • Harry T. Moore, a Suwannee County native who became the first martyr of the modern civil rights era when a bomb likely planted by the Ku Klux Klan exploded under his bedroom on Christmas 1951. Moore’s wife, Harriet, died in a hospital nine days later. Moore, a teacher and NAACP leader, filed the first lawsuit to pay black teachers the same as whites in Florida. It was unsuccessful, but he inspired others that succeeded. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared white-only primaries to be unconstitutional, his Progressive Voters League registered 116,000 blacks, 20 years before the Voting Rights Act. He was assassinated shortly after calling national attention to the questionable rape convictions of three black men in Lake County.
  • A. Philip Randolph, born in 1889 at Crescent City, Florida, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose intent to lead a civil rights march on Washington prompted Franklin Roosevelt to ban race discrimination in federal contracting during World War II and to establish the Fair Employment Practices Commission. He also was a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington best remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

Bethune, Hurston and Moore are memorialized at Tallahassee as “Great Floridians.” So are Collins and Askew. Johnson and Randolph belong on that list also, as well as on the short list to replace Edmund Kirby Smith.

Florida would be the fourth state to replace a statue. Alabama did so for Helen Keller, Kansas for Dwight D. Eisenhower, and California for Ronald Reagan.

Legg’s bill cleared its first committee in the face of scattered protests that it represents “revisionist history.” That’s not so. The issue is that there has been more than enough history since 1922 to call for a new and truer symbol of what Florida has contributed to the nation.

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Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Asheville, North Carolina.

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