More Statue Nonsense from Florida

A shameful aspect of woke intolerance has been the degrading of historical figures who fail to meet current standards of politically correctness. This vindictive fervor has spread from removing the statues of Confederate commanders and statesmen to removing those of American Founding Fathers who owned slaves to pulling down the statues of abolitionists who were not as radical as they might have been. It is therefore upsetting to discover the role played by Governor Ron DeSantis, who has become a poster boy for conservatives, in contributing to this madness.   Like his predecessor Rick Scott, DeSantis thinks it’s a good idea to dishonor a Confederate commander in order to elevate a civil rights icon.

In 2018 Scott signed into law something that DeSantis put into effect in 2019, removing the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith from National Statuary Hall and replacing it with one of the civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. If Scott and DeSantis were trying to highlight their devotion to the civil rights cause, perhaps to increase their share of the black vote, all they really did was behave foolishly.  Both Bethune and Kirby Smith deserve to be honored as Floridians, although unlike Kirby Smith, Bethune was born not in the Sunshine State but in Mayesville, South Carolina. I have no idea why this should be a zero-sum game, as it seems to be with Southern Republican governors. DeSantis, Scott, and Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas have all removed statues of Confederate heroes from place of honor and substituted for them civil rights activists.

No one is asking that Southern governors add to the number of Confederate memorial statues (that still abound in the former states of the Confederacy.) If our Southern Republican governors want to give recognition to more recent state celebrities by erecting statues to them, that is their right. The question is: why demean long-honored heroes in trying to pay homage to civil rights pioneers? Even if Southern Republicans have become strangely indifferent to seeing those associated with the Confederate cause being slighted, the swapping undertaken by their governors still strikes me as unseemly. It reflects badly on the character of those leaders who engage in such clumsy virtue-signaling. Why can’t they add new heroes without subtracting older ones, who long commanded respect? 

As an historian I can find much to admire in Bethune and Smith both. A dedicated and deeply religious black educator, Bethune focused on the Christian development of her students. She also deplored any misconduct on the part of blacks and like her mentor Booker T. Washington, Bethune, who was a stern disciplinarian, stressed the need for blacks to behave in a civil fashion in their own society as well as in the larger white one. Significantly, she allied with the Democratic Party and the New Deal administration in fighting disabilities against members of her race. And she played an important role in drawing away the black vote from DeSantis’s party to the Democrats during the 1930s. (Before the mid-1930s blacks had been overwhelmingly Republican.)

Kirby Smith is equally worthy of our respect, as a remarkably intelligent military leader and a dedicated natural scientist. Beside his resourceful service in the Confederate army, in which he won victories from Virginia to Texas, he distinguished himself as a brave commander in the Mexican War, after graduating with honors from West Point. After the Confederacy’s defeat, Kirby Smith devoted the remainder of his life to being a professor of mathematics and botany at the College of the South in Sewanee. He also spent considerable time collecting and categorizing plants and became a distinguished botanist. There is no reason Florida’s pantheon of state luminaries cannot make room for this distinguished native son as well as for Bethune. Even more relevant, there was no justification for removing Kirby Smith’s statue, which was already placed on Capitol Hill in Tallahassee.    

Finally, I can’t imagine that Bethune, any more than Kirby Smith, would have any use for the woke America now demanding that we celebrate her. It is impossible to imagine that Bethune, a teetotaling, strict Presbyterian who quoted the Holy Book nonstop, would feel a home with the current cultural Left or in the present civil rights movement. She and Kirby Smith would undoubtedly react with the same shock to the LGBT lobby and our present sexual politics. Neither would likely be cheering BLM, and both of these Florida worthies would be demanding that the police be called in to disband all perpetrators of violence, whatever their race. At some point, the media may discover how reactionary by current standards Bethune was. If she were alive today, she might be found on the far, far side of the Religious Right. Perhaps a future DeSantis may have to remove Bethune’s statue from Capitol Hill and replace it with that of a more fashionable black.        

Image: Library of Congress

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