Senate bill aims to end Confederate holidays in Florida

SB 224 would no longer recognize the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis as legal holidays in Florida.
Robert E. Lee was no U.S. Grant.
Robert E. Lee was no U.S. Grant.
Published Feb. 6, 2018

After more than a century, birthdays of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, along with a Confederate Memorial Day, would no longer be legal holidays in Florida under a bill approved by a Senate committee Tuesday.

Over the objections of people who argued the proposal (SB 224) would erase Southern history, the Senate Community Affairs Committee voted 4-2 — without debate or discussion — to support the measure. The bill would remove the Lee, Davis and Confederate days from a list of 21 legal holidays on the books in Florida.

However, the bill must still get through two additional committees to reach the Senate floor, while an identical House proposal (HB 227) has not appeared in committees.

Bill sponsor Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said her goal isn't to erase history, but to undercut tributes to the Confederacy, "which upheld the institution of slavery and perpetuated inequality and division within our country."

Florida has honored Lee's birthday, Jan. 19, since 1895, the same year April 26 became Confederate Memorial Day on the state calendar. Davis' June 3 birthday went on the books in 1905.

Lee is from Virginia. Davis is most associated with Mississippi.

Barbara Hemingway, of American First Team Manatee, saying President Donald Trump has "stood up for our national anthem and our beautiful statues," asked lawmakers to stand up for "Florida's history."

"The people that want Robert E. Lee's name obliterated from the civic landscape don't even like people with the last name Lee," Hemingway said.

Other speakers, distancing themselves from neo-Nazis and the KKK, said they were offended by efforts of outsiders without an understanding of the "legacy of the region" and with a desire to "make all things Southern invisible."

"These men, these holidays are celebrations that I was raised upon," said Mary Barlow of Lake City.

After another speaker compared Lee's moral character to that of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, cautioned speakers to keep close to the bill's subject matter.

State legal holidays are not necessarily paid holidays for public employees.

Sunday is considered a legal holiday. Other legal holidays that are not paid holidays include Susan B. Anthony's birthday, Good Friday, Pascua Florida Day to mark the discovery of Florida in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon and Flag Day.

Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it is important to remember the history of the Confederacy and slavery, but "anything celebrating our shameful past has no place in our government."

"It is past time for Florida to end its celebration of a treasonous government and two of its leaders who fought to enslave and oppress an entire group of people based on the color of their skin," McCoy said.

The hearing on the removal of the holidays came less than a week after the Senate agreed to replace a likeness of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the National Statuary Hall in Washington with a statue of civil-rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune (SB 472).

The statue exchange awaits action by the House (HB 139) which would make Bethune the first African-American woman to be honored in the national hall.

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.