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Florida Senate votes to replace statue of Confederate general in U.S. Capitol with civil rights leader

Florida Senate votes to replace statue of Confederate general in U.S. Capitol with civil rights leader
Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, civil rights activist and founder of Bethune Cookman College, circa 1920s. (Chicago History Museum)

Florida's Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to replace the state's statue of a Confederate general in the U.S. Capitol with a figure of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

If approved by the House and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, Florida would join other governments across the state and nation that have decided to remove or move Confederate memorials.

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"Dr. Bethune's life and values represent the best of Florida," said state Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the bill. "Voting for this legislation underscores that Floridians recognize our rich history and celebrate our diversity."

Senators voted 37-0 on SB 472 to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith and put Bethune in its place in the National Statuary Hall, where each state has two statues to represent it. Florida's other statue is of John Gorrie, a pioneering inventor of air conditioning.

The vote was unanimous because state Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), a self-described descendant of a Confederate soldier who voted against the bill in committee, changed his vote. Baxley said he was pleased an amendment was inserted last week to ensure Smith's statue would be returned to the Florida Department of State.

"It's always been a sticking point to me that we don't need to bestow dishonor in order to honor," Baxley said.

Bethune, an African American who died in 1955, worked to register blacks to vote during the Jim Crow era, founded what would become Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and later became an advisor to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.

A similar bill passed the Senate last year but failed to gain traction in the House. This year, however, the bill is making more progress and could come up for a floor vote in the next two weeks.

The move to replace Smith's statue began after the shooting of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 by a white supremacist led to a reappraisal of Confederate memorials throughout the country.

In Florida, Orlando, Pasco County and other governments have voted to move or take down Confederate memorials.

Florida lawmakers passed a bill in 2016 to remove Smith's statue and set up a cultural panel to determine a replacement. Bethune was approved unanimously by the panel, which also considered Everglades conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and George Washington Jenkins Jr., the founder of Publix.

Rohrer writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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