Fla. House panel backs plan for Bethune statue

Editor’s note: See our take on Bethune here.

By Jim Turner

News Service of Florida

A statue of civil-rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune moved closer Tuesday to replacing a likeness of a Confederate general in representing Florida in the U.S. Capitol.

The House Government Accountability Committee voted 20-1, with Jacksonville Republican Jay Fant opposed, to approve a measure (HB 139) that calls for a statue of Bethune to replace Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the National Statuary Hall.

Each state gets two representatives at the statuary hall, and Smith has represented Florida since 1922.

“The timing is right to pass this,” sponsor Patrick Henry, D-Daytona Beach, said after Tuesday’s committee meeting. “I think with all the controversy we’ve had with Charlottesville and the Confederate statues, it’s time to move forward.”

Fant, who is running for attorney general in 2018, said after the meeting that the Legislature shouldn’t be involved in the statue-removal process.

“Messing with statues is a fool’s errand for the Legislature,” Fant said. “I don’t think we should even remove any of the statues that we have, including the one’s that they’re moving to replace here. … It’s one of those issues that I think truly creates division within communities, this whole statue-removal business, and I don’t want to be part of all that.”

At least seven states have replaced representatives in the Hall since 2003, including Alabama which in 2009 put author and activist Helen Keller in the place of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, a diplomat who served as an officer in the Confederate Army.

State Rep. Neil Combee, an Auburndale Republican who described Smith as a “great guy,” said Bethune’s achievements outweighed other nominees for the honor.

“It’s clear that her life was devoted to improving people’s lives,” Combee said. “There is no question, she may have been our own little version of Mother Teresa right here in the state of Florida when you look at her work.”

Bethune, who in 1904 founded what became Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, held numerous rules, including serving as an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Henry said the university has offered to cover the cost of creating the statue and that Bethune would become the first African-American to be honored in the hall. Florida’s other representative in the hall is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning.

Henry’s bill is filed for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January. Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, filed a similar proposal (SB 472) on Tuesday.

The West Point-educated Smith was born in St. Augustine but had few ties to the state as an adult.

The Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue during a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols in the wake of the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.

However, lawmakers during the 2017 session did not reach agreement on whose likeness should replace Smith.

“I think Confederate statues like the one we’re trying to replace with this bill belong in a museum so that we can learn more from our past than glorifying it,” state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat and member of the Government Accountability Committee, said Tuesday.

Democrats’ demands for a replacement grew this summer in the wake of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly. A plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee helped spur the Charlottesville rally.

At that time, Florida’s 11 congressional Democrats signed identical letters to Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron calling for a special legislative session on the statue issue.

During the 2017 session, the Senate advanced a measure in support of Bethune, but there was no House version. Instead, a bill was proposed in the House proposing the honor go to Everglades activist and writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

A panel known as the Great Floridians Committee last year nominated three possible candidates to replace Smith. In addition to Bethune and Douglas, the other nominee was Publix grocery story founder George Washington Jenkins Jr.

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