Tampa Bay Times
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It took too long, divided the community and embarrassed the entire Tampa Bay region. But the Hillsborough County Commission did right Wednesday by reversing its position and voting to remove a Confederate monument from the old county courthouse. As with many debates involving race, this one brought out the best and worst in people. But the public outcry and the commission's about-face was a clear victory for inclusion and for public participation in the political process.
The commission voted 4-2 to remove the memorial, which stands outside the courthouse in downtown Tampa. That reversed a June decision that prompted a broad backlash among political, church and business leaders. The monument was dedicated in 1911 with a speech by the state attorney, Herbert Phillips, who called blacks an "ignorant and inferior race" and declared that any president who appointed an African-American to office amounted to "an enemy of good government" and "a traitor to the Anglo-Saxon race."
This homage to racism had no place on public property, much less a hall of justice, and the four commissioners who voted to move it — Al Higginbotham, Pat Kemp, Les Miller and Sandra Murman — have helped to affirm the principle of equal treatment and started to repair the damage inflicted on the region's image nationally in the last few weeks. Murman clouded her moment in the sun by insisting she was changing her June vote because private donors — not taxpayers — will pay for the relocation and by suggesting, without success, that the decision be punted to a countywide referendum. Still, Murman was the swing vote when it mattered. Commissioner Victor Crist, who also voted in June to keep the memorial, was absent Wednesday, though he also signaled a change of heart.
The real credit goes to community activists who wouldn't give up and to local political, business, religious and civic leaders who recognized a wrong when they saw it and the damage that keeping the memorial would cause for Tampa Bay's public image. The dignified protests outside the memorial weren't going away. The bishop of a major African-American church was prepared to ask his members for a boycott of conventions in the city. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other elected city officials denounced the move, and it was criticized by professional sports teams on both sides of Tampa Bay, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay Rays. Commissioners failed to recognize the seriousness of the public relations mess and the pain they caused black residents, and they became increasingly isolated as they tried to appease those on both sides of the issue.
Tom Scarritt also deserves credit for breaking the impasse. The Tampa attorney offered to raise private money to relocate the memorial, giving Murman cover to change her vote and swing the board majority. That clears the way for the county to pursue a separate offer to move the statue to a private cemetery in eastern Hillsborough County. Scarritt said he was looking for a compromise that showed respect to all sides. "We have a chance here," he told commissioners before the vote, "to be role model for the rest of the South."
This was an unnecessary, protracted debate that ultimately brought out some of the best character in this community. Once again, it showed that real leadership often comes first not from elected leaders but from the people they represent. Scarritt and others saw a grievance and found a solution. A Confederate memorial will now be relocated through a GoFundMe campaign. This was the right outcome and reflected community action in full bloom.
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