TALLAHASSEE — Bucking a national trend, a defiant Walton County voted Tuesday after an emotional hearing to replace one Confederate flag with another one at its courthouse in the Florida Panhandle.
Under intense pressure from a deeply divided citizenry, county commissioners agreed to remove the controversial flag with the X-shaped Southern Cross design that has flown at the courthouse in DeFuniak Springs since 1964, the year President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
As that flag heads to a local museum, it will be replaced by the first version of the Confederate flag known as the stars and bars, with 13 stars arranged in a circle next to horizontal red and white bars.
"The soil of Walton County has been enriched with the blood and sweat of the people who came before every one of us, some who fought and died in the war between the states," said Commissioner Sara Comander, who suggested the switch. "I want to honor all of those who came before us, but I also want to be cognizant of those that the present flag seems to offend."
Applause broke out after the 4-0 vote as opponents vowed to keep fighting to remove the new flag.
"It's a cop-out, not a compromise," said Daniel Uhlfelder of Santa Rosa Beach, a lawyer who has led citizen opposition to the flag. "Nobody asked for this. It still represents slavery. It's not going to bring the community together."
As the rebel flag fluttered outside, more than 100 people packed a hearing room. Some wore "Take Down the Flag" buttons and others wore T-shirts emblazoned with the flag design. The division was on full display during three hours of debate.
"To me, the Confederate flag is a symbol of rebellion, hatred and painful superiority," said Tyrone Broadus, a black pastor and DeFuniak Springs resident.
Betty Latcher of Panama City Beach said she proudly flies the battle flag at her home. "The heritage in my husband's family stands for a lot," she said.
James Moore Crawford, who said his great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army and nearly starved "on orders from Washington," retired to DeFuniak Springs 23 years ago.
"I saw the Confederate flag and said this is a wonderful place to be," Crawford said.
Walton County, with a population of about 57,000, is home to fourth and fifth-generation Floridians who are descendants of Civil War soldiers, and who view the flag as an enduring tribute to the sacrifices of their forebears.
But there's another Walton, of Sandestin and Seaside and Seagrove Beach. Its white sandy beaches and upscale resorts make it a favorite destination for tourists and groups holding conferences, which is why the NAACP is talking about pressuring Federal Express to reconsider plans to locate in the county.
"That Confederate battle flag invokes and incites anger," the NAACP's Dale Landry testified. "This is going to impact you economically."
Donald Graham said it's wrong for the Confederate flag to fly at a building where judges render verdicts. "People walk in this building looking for justice, and it puts a doubt in their minds," he said.
In the aftermath of last month's massacre at a black church in Charleston, S.C., rebel flags quickly came down in the Capitols of South Carolina and Alabama, the city of Pensacola and elsewhere, as pictures of gunman Dylann Roof showed him posing next to images of the Confederate flag.
Walton County Commissioner Bill Chapman, who faces re-election next year, withdrew support for Comander's proposal but later voted for it, and said he knew it might hurt him at the polls.
"You're looking at next year's election and I'm up," Chapman told the crowd. "If that's what you want to do, and cast your vote against me, so be it. I can go back and handle my cows on a 24-hour basis, instead of in the afternoons."
Commissioner Cindy Meadows accused vague "outside forces" of sowing division in Walton County for political advantage.
"It has worked," Meadows said. "Look at us now."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.