MAXWELL:  Our state history can’t be erased

4/15/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Imagine taking a group of schoolchildren to Tallahassee to visit the Capitol to learn more about Florida history. The students’ assignment is to comment on the significance of the three flags _ French, British and Spanish _ beside the Florida flag and the American flag that have flown outside the building since 1978. These banners commemorate the governments that had ruled the state since the 1500s.

After the students have returned home and written their essays, they must be told their histories are incomplete. Before they visited the Capitol, a group of black legislators had persuaded the governor and the secretary of state to remove the Confederate flag. But the students want to know why that flag was removed and how does its removal change the meaning of their essays and of history itself.

They should be told that, during these days of ethnic hypersensitivity, history means nothing if someone or some group is offended by certain events, people, words or symbols. Many black lawmakers are hell-bent on removing the flag, the third in a series of official flags for the Confederate government, that commemorates the Confederacy when it had jurisdiction over the peninsula. That’s right. Florida was a part of the band of states that went to war against the United States. And, yes, that rebel government had an official banner.

Should this fact be known? Should the flag of that era fly at the Capitol? Should the government spend tax dollars to maintain the flag? The answer to all three questions is YES. The flag is flown for bona fide historical reasons. Other states, such as South Carolina, have flown the flag like a bloody shirt to announce that they opposed school desegregation. Everyone, black or white, should oppose such a display. But that was not Florida’s intention. Removing the flag will not remake history. It may tame the tempers of a handful of black lawmakers, but Florida’s history is recorded in the stars for all time.

Placating the likes of Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa, will not erase, say, the Civil War and Reconstruction. In fact, his comments are worth noting, if only to acknowledge his kind of argument against the flag: “There are many people who feel strongly the (Confederate) symbol represents something that’s offensive, that’s wrongful to the psyche. We ought to remove anything that divides us.” If we follow Hargrett’s logic, we would remove Martin Luther King’s Birthday Holiday and Black History Month because they, too, divide us. No black child would be permitted to wear a T-shirt bearing the image of Malcolm X. Louis Farrakhan would be banned from all public places.

I agree with the common sense of Sen. Charles Williams, D-Live Oak: “Florida history is not all good. The (Confederate) flag is part of our history, and we can’t change that.”

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.