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At Charlottesville Unity Vigil, A Call To Remove Jacksonville Confederate Monuments

Ryan Benk
More than 100 gather in Jacksonville's Memorial Park Sunday evening.

Left-leaning activists rallied Sunday evening in Jacksonville’s Memorial Park and held a candlelight vigil mourning the one dead and several injured at the “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia Saturday.

A 20-year-old man was charged with murder after plowing his car into a group of counter-protesters to the alt-right gathering, which included neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

The rally had descended on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Meanwhile, local activists are demanding Jacksonville’s Confederate monuments be scrapped next.

A movement calling itself #TakeEmDownJax is part of a national call to pull Confederate monuments from public spaces. A local petition is also calling for the renaming of streets and schools with Confederate names.

In Memorial Park Sunday, speakers from the New Black Panther Party and Jacksonville Progressive Coalition echoed those demands.

One of them, 71-year-old Wells Todd, said though he spent his childhood in New York, he saw the South’s Jim Crow era firsthand.

“I had never experienced separate bathrooms and riding in the back of the bus and not being able to sit down at lunch counters. I had a weeklong experience over the Christmas holiday of that,” he said. “It wasn’t until later on in life that I realized why my mother wouldn’t send me south to spend the summers with my grandparents.”

A Peaceful Counter-Protest

Nearby was a vastly outnumbered group of six counter-demonstrators. One, Southern Heritage’s Seber Newsome, was waving a Confederate battle flag. He blamed counter-protesters in Virginia for the bloodshed there.

“It ain’t going to help race relations if you tear something down. Look at Charlottesville. That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We’re tired of this. We’re tired of our ancestors’ being disrespected.”

Newsome said instead, he’d like to see more statues erected honoring prominent African-Americans.

Three of his fellow counter-protestors sported insignias of the Three Percenters movement, a right-wing group that supports arming its members and planning in case they need to “stand and fight against a tyranny,” according to their Facebook page.

Jacksonville’s vigil remained peaceful, however.

Police kept counter-demonstrators and vigil-goers apart, something that wasn’t lost on one attendee, progressive activist Connell Crooms. During an April protest in Hemming Park, officers injured Crooms as they arrested him during a scuffle with a right-wing counter-protester. Charges against him were later dropped.

On Sunday, Crooms said, “I’m glad that the officers are doing their job and keeping people apart. This is exactly what I would’ve liked to see at Hemming Park when we asked them to do so.”

‘Too Busy To Hate’

Within 48 hours of the rally and deadly attack in Charlottesville, Jacksonville activists were calling for City Council to act to remove Confederate symbols. 

In an email to Mayor Lenny Curry and City Council members, Northside Coalition spokesman Ben Frazier, who also spoke at Sunday’s vigil, wrote, "We should end the glorification of the Confederacy and stop perpetuating white supremacy. The Coalition is asking that the city council be considerate of the painful past and its negative impact on black citizens. It's time for Jacksonville to become known as the Bold new City of the South, a city that is too busy to hate.”

While no specific legislation is currently before the council, the idea of removing Confederate monuments has been prompting passionate public comment since 2015, when Confederate symbolism started being removed across the South in response to a white supremacist’s murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

An effort to protect a Confederate monument in Jacksonville’s Hemming Park with a historic designation was postponed this spring.

Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.