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Confederate flag quietly removed from Capitol

Supporters feel betrayed, but governor says symbols of the state's past shouldn't divide the state today.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- The Confederate flag was removed this month from the Florida state Capitol, with little notice and none of the uproar that accompanied its departure in other Southern states.

The "Stainless Banner," which features the Confederate battle flag design in the top left corner of a field of white, was retired Feb. 2. It had flown since 1978 outside the Capitol's west entrance.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris -- Republicans who angered thousands of black Floridians during the controversial presidential election -- simply decided it was time for the flag to go.

"Regardless of our views about the symbolism of the . . . flags -- and people of goodwill can disagree on the subject -- the governor believes that most Floridians would agree that the symbols of Florida's past should not be displayed in a manner that may divide Floridians today," Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur said in a written statement.

Flags commemorating the French, Spanish and British governments that once ruled the state and flew beside the Confederate flag also were removed. All four will be housed at the Florida Museum of History a few blocks from the Capitol.

"The governor is confident that a new historical display at the museum will better reflect the context and history of Florida's historical flags as we begin a new century," Baur's statement read.

Bush decided to remove the flags in late December, though he had been contemplating the act for more than a year, Baur said. Removing the flag was not an attempt to appease blacks who felt disenfranchised during the presidential election, she said.

The close margin in Florida between Bush's brother George and Democrat Al Gore triggered vote recounts and widespread reports of voting irregularities, particularly in minority communities. The U.S. Supreme Court decided the election in Bush's favor on Dec. 12.

State Sen. Kendrick Meek, a black Democrat from Miami and vocal critic of Gov. Bush, sees an ulterior motive.

"I think the last thing the governor needs is these continuing waves of run-ins with African-Americans," Meek said. "I think he's going through a checklist of things he can possibly correct between now and the 2002 election to try to diffuse any of those issues."

Baur rejected Meek's theory.

"It has absolutely nothing to do with that. The governor's office has been thinking about this for a long time," Baur said.

A remodeling project that began this month and includes adding a fountain at the Capitol required temporary removal of the flags, Baur said. Bush seized the opportunity to remove the Confederate flag, a painful reminder of slavery for many blacks.

As secretary of state, the Florida Constitution gives Harris final say over the display of the flags. She approved Bush's decision, Baur said.

Neither Bush nor Harris made public announcements before the change. The flag's supporters were caught off guard.

"If (Bush) had 3,000 protesters in front of the place hollering to take the flag down, I would at least understand why. But nobody said anything, at least that we were aware of," said John Adams of Altamonte Springs, Florida division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"I feel betrayed."

In 1996, black legislators called for removing the flag but were rebuffed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles and Secretary of State Sandra Mortham. Baur said Bush's decision was not prompted by similar complaints.

The removal of the flags went virtually unnoticed during the past week in Tallahassee, with the exception of about 25 e-mails from puzzled citizens to Bush's office.

The quiet stood in contrast to Georgia, where last month state lawmakers agreed after rancorous debate to shrink the Confederate emblem on the state flag.

In South Carolina, controversy over the Confederate flag that flew over the State House led to an economic boycott by civil rights groups. It was moved to a spot on the Capitol grounds last summer. And in Mississippi, the only state besides Georgia with the Confederate emblem in its flag, voters will decide in April whether to remove the symbol.

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