Years of relatively routine proclamations by Hillsborough County commissioners setting aside a Southern Heritage Month or a Confederate Memorial Day appear to be at an end.
A new policy requires majority commission approval for potentially controversial proclamations. That, combined with an evolving landscape on race relations, is leaving an upcoming proclamation for the Sons of Confederate Veterans without support for passage next week.
"I have decided not to sign it because I think it creates pain for others, and I just thought it was best to pass on it," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham.
He was the deciding voice in whether to support the proclamation, effectively taking it off the agenda for the board's meeting on Wednesday. Commissioners Jim Norman, Ken Hagan and Brian Blair had already signed the document. Commissioners Rose Ferlita, Kevin White and Mark Sharpe refused, though Sharpe has signed in the past.
"Whether you support the Union or the Confederate at that time or at this time, there were people's ancestors who were killed," Blair said. "If it were one of your ancestors, you'd want them remembered, too."
Commissioners who decided not to sign the proclamation cited increased sensitivity about racially divisive issues, including ongoing national media coverage of syndicated radio host Don Imus' remarks and recent failed plans for a former slave ship on exhibit at Tampa's science museum.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans had received the proclamation from commissioners for years, said Hillsborough County spokeswoman Lori Hudson. The board's procedure for passing out proclamations had one simple rule: It had to come through a commissioner's office. If an individual commissioner didn't support it, he or she didn't sign.
Things changed after a Jan. 18 meeting when the board gave a proclamation recognizing Confederate commander Robert E. Lee on the same day it honored James A. Hammond, a community activist who is black. Commissioners later apologized and adopted a policy that requires review of proclamations that don't deal with children, volunteers or county employees.
Marion Lambert, past commander for the Gen. Jubal A. Early Camp 556, Sons of Confederate Veterans, based in Hillsborough, said the policy didn't bother him. But the lack of understanding by disapproving commissioners did.
"Southern heritage is not exclusive," Lambert said. "The commissioners not signing it have a lack of historical understanding of this history. It speaks of ignorance. It speaks of lack of edification. ... A lack of intellectual honesty. It speaks to the commissioners personally more than it speaks to the social end."
Hillsborough NAACP president Curtis Stokes called the proclamation a "slap in the face" for local residents, considering recent headlines. And not everything in history deserves to be honored, he said.
"What happens when the sons and daughters of the Nazis say we want to commemorate Hitler or communism? Do we give them a day also?" Stokes said.
Commissioner Rose Ferlita said the board should learn from its mistake in January and use better judgment about these kinds of honors.
"From here forth, we just have to watch what we put our names to and feel good about it," she said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or email@example.com.
AT A GLANCE
The basics of the new policy
Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners' Policy on Proclamations and Certificates of Commendations:
- All proclamations which are routine and noncontroversial, including proclamations to commend children and all honors and awards for employees and volunteers, shall be presigned.
- All other proclamations and certificates of commendation shall be prescreened to preclude proclamations which are controversial or sensitive because they address matters of political controversy, ideological or religious beliefs, one's individual conviction, or address matters which do not serve a public interest. Copies of precluded proclamations shall be forwarded to commissioners' staff for review and reconsideration. In order for a proclamation that falls in this category to be scheduled on an agenda for presentation by the Board of County Commissioners, at least four board members must sign the proclamation.