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Bush steadfast in rebel flag debate

A flag supporter criticizes the removal of a rebel flag from Capitol grounds. The governor says he did the right thing.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush wanted to avoid the mess other Southern states ran into over Confederate flags, so he quietly removed a banner from the Capitol and sent it to a state museum.

Now he's hearing complaints from those who insist the flag should have stayed where it was.

"These flags were not intended to be anything other than a historical display from the word go, and as such I think they should have been treated with a lot more respect than they have been," said John W. Adams, the Sons of Confederate Veterans Florida division commander.

The "Stainless Banner," a battle flag featuring the Confederate emblem at the top inside corner of a field of white, had flown at the Capitol since 1978. It was removed along with flags commemorating the French, Spanish and British governments that once ruled the state. The flags have been moved to a temporary location at the Museum of Florida History, where a permanent exhibit featuring about a dozen historical flags is under construction.

Bush defended his decision Friday, saying he hoped to avert the problems encountered by other states flying rebel banners.

"We've handled it the right way, defused something that clearly was going to become a major issue," Bush said.

"The fact is, for the Sons of the Confederacy and other groups that sincerely want us to cherish our heritage, that we can continue to do so. There's nothing that I've done that diminishes that at all."

Adams, whose organization has about 1,800 members in Florida, called Bush's decision an insult to the Southern culture represented by the flag, which he said has not been adopted by any racist or hate groups.

But Joseph Wright, a Tallahassee pastor who initiated a campaign to take down the flag in 1995, called it a divisive symbol of racism for many blacks.

"The flag needed to come down. Put the flag up that represents America, not a segment of the population or a race of people," Wright said.

The rebel flag has flown alongside controversy of late in a number of states, including Florida. The Columbia County chapter of the NAACP is threatening to sue Lake City over a Confederate battle flag in the city's logo.

Georgia replaced its state flag last month to remove the dominant Confederate symbol. In July, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from atop the Capitol after pressure from a boycott led by the NAACP. In April, Mississippi voters will choose between the current 1894 flag and a design that replaces the Confederate emblem with a circle of 20 stars to signify Mississippi's admission as the 20th state.

A remodeling project at the Florida Capitol this month required the temporary removal of the Confederate flag and the three other flags. Bush used the opportunity to remove them permanently.

Adams, whose group began a letter-writing campaign after the flag's removal Feb. 2, said he asked Bush to meet with him.

"He believed he saved himself a headache and he's created a bigger one, because the fact that he brought the flag down didn't win him a single vote, but the fact that he brought it down . . . could potentially cost him votes," Adams said.

Bush said he was not going to change his mind.

"As it relates to flags flying over our Capitol, I kind of like the American flag, the Florida flag and by law we have the POW flag, and that's fine enough for me," Bush said.

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