It took private citizens less than 24 hours to do what their elected leaders in Hillsborough County could not for the past three months: Find the moral fortitude and the money to move a century-old Confederate war memorial from outside the county courthouse. Thursday's achievement was a lesson in leadership to county leaders and a message in the wake of the Charlottesville, Va., tragedy that bigotry has no place in the public square and that all Americans can help shape their communities for the better.
The commission changed course for the third time on Wednesday and gave a private-sector group raising funds to move the statue an ultimatum: Raise at least $140,000 in the next 30 days or the memorial would remain at the old courthouse in downtown Tampa. This was a stunning flip-flop and a betrayal of private citizens who stepped in to get the county out of a mess the majority of commissioners tried to dodge. Commissioners Victor Crist, Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman and Stacy White, who erected the latest roadblock, made Tampa look like a backwater, especially in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, when other cities were removing Confederate monuments literally overnight and without any hand-wringing.
Thursday will be remembered as one of the most positive days in recent civic history. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn got the ball rolling with an early tweet of his $1,000 personal donation to the statue relocation fund. That was followed by generous contributions from longtime community leaders, from ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy ($5,000) and former Tampa Bay Storm owner Bob Gries ($50,000) to former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink ($1,000). Ordinary citizens also reached into their pockets. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce contributed $70,000, putting the campaign, initiated by Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt, over the goal. Money was still pouring in before the business day was over.
These citizens saw three things that escaped four Hillsborough commissioners. The statue is an ode to racism that has no place on public property. It misrepresents the inclusive, welcoming nature of Tampa Bay, and it puts Hillsborough County on the map for white supremacists. Its presence only localizes a toxic climate playing out in other parts of the country.
The Chamber of Commerce hit the nail on the head, framing the commission's action as a failure in leadership. It noted it acted after commissioners chose "to pass their responsibility to the business community." While accepting the challenge, the Chamber said it looked forward to working with commissioners "in the future to make more enlightened decisions." Almost to prove the chamber's point, Crist had the gall to pat himself on the back Thursday for sloughing the matter off to the private sector.
There was one right decision here, and it shouldn't have taken months for commissioners to make it. In the end, it fell to private citizens and not their elected leaders to be the moral voice in the community. It is a proud moment for the power of civic involvement. But it is was a swift rebuke to the commission's indifference, and the county — for shame's sake, if nothing else — should strive to work with equal haste to carry out the people's will.