Once again, the Florida Legislature had a chance to remove the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis as official state holidays. Once again, lawmakers had a chance to say that Confederate symbols — including the Confederate battle flag — should no longer be protected under state law. Once again, the Legislature declined to take any action whatsoever.
This wasn’t a heavy lift. A bill introduced by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, would not have added any new laws to the books. It simply — and literally — would have drawn a line through references in state law to Confederate symbols and the legal holidays marking Confederate leaders and Confederate memorial day. Look at this illustration.
See how easy it is to strike lines through holidays, symbols and men that we should not commemorate under Florida law? As it is, state law gives the same protection to the Confederate battle flag that it offers to the flag of Florida itself. It celebrates Jefferson Davis the same as George Washington. It celebrates Robert E. Lee the same as Abraham Lincoln. That’s not right.
This mattered this year more than ever. In a year of national reckoning after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer, and months after insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol flying the Confederate battle flag, the meaning of those symbols is lost on no one. Yet here we are.
In the just-ended regular legislative session, lawmakers found time at the last minute to ban transgender girls and women from competing in women’s scholastic sports, but they couldn’t spare a couple of seconds to draw a few lines through a bad state law that protects flags that were flown by traitors to the United States and holidays that still honor the men who led them. Talk about living in the past and fearing the future. A forward-facing Florida would confront and learn from its past, not romanticize and whitewash it.
Let’s say it again: These aren’t old laws of which no one was aware. Three times in recent years, Book has filed legislation that would simply excise these men’s birthdays as state holidays and remove Confederate symbols from the protection of state law. Each session, her bill went nowhere. Legislative leaders could have acted — and didn’t. Year after year. At least in 2018, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, let the bill clear his committee even though he opposed it. No one was that fair-minded this year.
This isn’t about denying someone’s heritage or somehow being too “woke” about history. It’s not revisionist. It’s just being true to the facts. In fact, the bill wouldn’t judge the men or the symbols. It would simply have stopped commemorating their birthdays as official state holidays and ended state protections of Confederate symbols. Why wouldn’t the Legislature take this simple step?
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Instead, Florida law will continue to officially celebrate the birthday of Robert E. Lee on Jan. 19, four days after honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One man fought against the United States for a Confederacy that sought to preserve slavery. The other man was beaten and went to jail for what was right, winning the Nobel Prize for envisioning an America of equality that would judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Which man deserves a state holiday? Next session, the Legislature should make it a priority to fix this flawed law. It would only take a minute.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.