Confederate memorial prompts protests, debate

Confederate Memorial at Manatee County Courthouse H1 082317 JH
The Confederate memorial stands in front of the Manatee County Historic Courthouse. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

BRADENTON – The Confederate memorial downtown stands covered in plywood today in anticipation of a scheduled Unity March and counter protests.

Manatee County Commissioners voted against removing the memorial on Friday but directed that it be protected; on Saturday, the memorial was encased in plywood.

Confederate Memorial plywood
On Saturday afternoon, the memorial was encased in plywood. –
Donald White | Submitted

The Confederate memorial stands in front of the Manatee County Historic Courthouse and near the Manatee County Judicial Center. The two buildings share a public courtyard.

The memorial features inscriptions on all four sides.

The west side says, “Erected by the Judah P. Benjamin Chapter United Daughters of the Confederacy June 3, 1924” with the name “Stonewall Jackson” below; Jackson was a Confederate general in the Civil War.

The east side says, “Calm and Noble in Peace. Courageous and Chilvalrous (sic) in War. True to the Best Traditions of the South. The Confederate Soldier Lives Enshrined in the Hearts of His Grateful Countrymen.” with the name “Robert E. Lee” below; Lee was a Confederate general in the Civil War.

Confederate Memorial Robert E. Lee
The Confederate memorial references southern traditions, Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Flag. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

The north side features a Confederate flag and says, “In Memory of Our Confederate Soldiers.”

Confederate memorial - Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis
The Confederate memorial erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy includes the slogan “Lest We Forget.” – Joe Hendricks | Sun

The south side says, “1861-1865 Lest We Forget” with the name “Jefferson Davis” below; Davis was the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Damage control

Black Lives Matter Alliance Sarasota Manatee Chapter, Indivisible Bradenton Pro-gressive, Answer Suncoast and Action Together Suncoast organized Monday’s march that was to begin at the Bradenton Riverwalk and end at the memorial. Supporters were asked to protest for the removal of a memorial they believe does not signify unity and justice for all.

Members of the Donald Trump-supportive America First-Team Manatee organization then announced plans to assemble in support of the memorial.

County Commission chair Betsy Benac called for Friday afternoon’s emergency meeting. Benac said Jan Greene requested the memorial be removed and placed in safekeeping until a new location could be found. Greene is affiliated with the United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter that erected the statue. She also chairs the Manatee County Historical Commission.

One point of debate is that the memorial symbolizes a Confederacy that fought to preserve slavery, and that may not be an appropriate message to display near a public courthouse expected to offer equal rights to all who enter. An opposing point is that the War Between the States was fought primarily to preserve the right of states to govern themselves, and that the Confederacy was not exclusively comprised of slave owners.

“We do not want another Charlottesville.” – Priscilla Whisenant Trace, Manatee County Commissioner

The Gamble Plantation Historic Park in Ellenton was mentioned as a possible relocation point because museums and historic parks can provide a more encompassing historical perspective of the Civil War.

Monumental debate

Charles Smith, the commission’s only African-American, said the memorial does not represent both sides of history. He expressed concerns about Confederate memorials being used as recruiting tools by white supremacists. He also noted the Ku Klux Klan once killed an NAACP leader in Florida – Brevard County NAACP founder Harry T. Moore was killed by a bomb on Christmas Day, 1951.

“Men went to war because their leaders could not find a peaceful pathway,” Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace said of the Civil War, wondering aloud if America is headed that way again.

She questioned the need to remove historic memorials, but acknowledged public safety concerns.

“We do not want another Charlottesville,” she said.

Commissioners Robin DiSabatino, Carol Whitmore and Steve Jonsson said they never knew the statue existed until recently.

“If we start removing that memorial the next step is that flag; then the next step is everything else that we hold dear,” DiSabatino said of the American flag hanging in the commission chambers.

During public input, America First-Team Manatee member Yaya Stafford said, “We would not be where we are today had we not gone through that conflict. Erasing it doesn’t make it go away.”

David Finkelstein said, “Is it history if it only gives one side?”

Jack O’Keefe said the commission lacked the legal authority to remove a statue from a historical landmark. County Planning Official John Osborne said Bradenton’s historic preservation ordinance pertains to the courthouse, but not the memorial.

Commissioners and public speakers requested the memorial be discussed again at a future meeting and it was suggested Manatee County voters be asked to determine the memorial’s fate.

After nearly three hours of emotionally charged debate, Smith made a motion for the memorial to be removed per Greene’s request, at an estimated cost of $10,000. Benac and Trace supported Smith’s motion. DiSabatino, Jonsson, Whitmore and Vanessa Baugh did not. The commission then voted 6-1 in favor covering the memorial, which Smith opposed because it leaves the memorial in place.