TAMPA – Politicians, clergy and community leaders demanded Tuesday that the Hillsborough County Commission reverse course and remove a Confederate monument from the old county courthouse.
At an emotional news conference, Bennie Small, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, recalled the racism he has faced in his lifetime, including being barred from a restaurant near the University of South Florida because he is black.
"We must make some progress," he told about 40 sign-bearing protesters sitting on and around the monument. "Take this statue down and let people live the way the want to."
The crowd joined in chanting "Take it down" after speakers finished the 30-minute news conference. A small group of counter-protesters made it clear they thought the statue should stay, but there were no confrontations.
The monument has stood since 1911, when state attorney Herbert S. Phillips dedicated the statue with racist remarks.
Last week, Hillsborough County commissioners voted 4-3 to keep the monument but place a mural celebrating diversity behind it.
Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said the nation's values directly contradict those of the Confederacy and called for the statue to be moved away from the courthouse.
"It belongs in a museum," Viera said. "It doesn't belong here."
Several speakers argued the monument belies the notion of fair treatment in the courts.
"Move it from where people come for justice," said Chloe Coney, founder of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa.
Said the NAACP's Small: "How can you look for justice when you've got injustice placed in front of you when you go to the courthouse?"
Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp, one of the three dissenting votes last week, said she is a descendant of a Confederate soldier but does not think the statue belongs where it is.
The Rev. James Golden, chair of the social action committee for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida, said Commissioner Les Miller — the board's only black member — was right to call the decision "a slap in the face."
He said the board members who voted for it — Victor Crist, Ken Hagan, Sandra Murman and Stacy White — should reconsider.
"One of you must change. Not just your mind, but you've got to change your heart," Golden said.
Haneen Ali, 27 of Wesley Chapel, said she came to the news conference to speak out against the vote.
"This statue stands for white supremacy," she said.
James Wilson, a 34-year-old Tampa singer, said it represents "a modern day slavery" but that he is confident it will be taken down.
"As a movement, we can get this monument moved," he said.
Phil Walters of Tampa, one of a handful of monument supporters at the protest, said removing it won't bring people together.
"All you're doing is divide, divide, divide," he said.
Kemp said officials in Orlando and Gainesville recently made the right decision to remove prominent Confederate symbols and that the commission's decision sends the wrong message. She said the issue may come back up.
"Any commissioner can bring this forward in the future. It really will depend on the will of the community to go forward," she said.
"We have the world watching us."