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Proposal to remove Confederate statue passes through Senate panel after debate

Although the Senate bill to remove the statue of a Confederate general from one of Florida’s two places in the National Statuary Hall Collection advanced in committee Wednesday, it was hardly smooth sailing.

Momentum for such legislation began last summer, after the South Carolina Legislature removed the Confederate battle flag from its statehouse grounds after a racist killer shot nine people to death in a black church in Charleston.

That event led critics in Florida to complain that Civil War Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith‘s statue should be retired from its place in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.

However, the bill’s sponsor – Pasco County Republican John Legg – mentioned none of that Wednesday when he  introduced the bill in the Senate Rules Committee. That omission led Niceville Republican Don Gaetz to question the need to remove Smith’s statue.

“There is nothing in the bill analysis, nothing in the testimony, that tells us any reason why General Smith ought to be gone,” Gaetz said. “Was he indicted? Did he commit some heinous act? There’s no indictment of him, no criticism of him.”

Other legislators defended Legg’s bill, saying there’s nothing wrong with changing a statue that has been enshrined in Washington since 1922.

“I don’t necessarily see any problem at taking a look at these things say every 60 years or so,” said Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.

Legg apologized for not making a thorough explanation when introducing the bill.

He remedied that by offering some of Smith’s history: He lived in Florida until he was 12, never returned, and taught his slave how to read.

“I don’t think Mr Kirby lived in Florida long enough, had enough impact in our state, and quite frankly, I didn’t think he inspired us enough,” Legg said.

There was considerable opposition, though, during public comment.

“It’s a small political group who’s behind all this,” complained James Shillinglaw, board member of the Museum of Southern History in Jacksonville, and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “There’s not a real outcry across the people of Florida to remove Kirby Smith. It’s just not there.”

“We cannot remove the good or the bad of our history. We can only move forward,” Ron Parks from Middleburg said in an emotional comment. “Our history cannot be removed, destroyed or tampered with in any form.”

“So we take Kirby Smith out of the Capitol Building in Washington ,D.C.  Where does he go? Where do we place him? What do we do with this portion of history?” MaryEllen Gwynes said.

In spite of their concerns, the measure passed.

A companion bill  (CS/HB 141)  sponsored in the House by Miami Republican Jose Diaz calls for replacement of both statues, and for the Ad Hoc Committee of the Great Floridians Program and the Department of State to recommend replacement candidates. Florida’s second statue depicts Dr. John Gorrie, an Apalachicola physician who pioneered the creation of  air conditioning in the 1840s.

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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