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First Coast

Lawsuit Filed In Jacksonville Seeks To Block Funding For Confederate Monuments

Former Jacksonville attorney Earl Johnson Jr. is pictured Thursday at James Weldon Johnson Park.
Sydney Boles
/
WJCT News
Former Jacksonville attorney Earl Johnson Jr. is pictured Thursday at James Weldon Johnson Park.

Former Jacksonville attorney Earl Johnson Jr. is arguing in a lawsuit filed Thursday that Confederate monuments on public land, and maintained by public funding, are unconstitutional government endorsements of white supremacy. Johnson made the announcement in James Weldon Johnson Park, 60 years after his father, Jacksonville's first Black City Council President and attorney to Martin Luther King Jr., stood in the same spot to announce seeking to desegregate public spaces. 

“I see our work as continuing the civil rights march and taking down these symbols of white supremacy on public land,” Johnson said. 

Johnson was disbarred in 2019 after he allegedly continued to practice law while under a suspension, and failed to appropriately notify his clients. He now runs the nonprofit Take It Down, advocating for the removal of Confederate monuments. He is filing the lawsuit on his own behalf, without the assistance of an attorney. 

The lawsuit, filed in the Middle District of Florida, names Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry as defendants. 

If successful, the lawsuit would block taxpayer money from being spent to maintain or protect Confederate monuments on public land, on the grounds that Supreme Court interpretation of the 13th Amendment allows Congress to pass laws barring the “badges and incidents of slavery.” According to the National Constitution Center, the Supreme Court has never defined the full scope of what the badges and incidents of slavery are. 

Johnson said the argument has not been applied to Confederate monuments before, but a similar argument was made in Mississippi as activists pushed to have Confederate imagery removed from the state’s flag.

“I am bolstered by recent legal articles by law professors that have taken a look specifically at the issue of the white supremacy symbolism of Confederate monuments vis-a-vis the federal protections under the 13th amendment protecting against badges of slavery,” he said. 

The lawsuit comes more than a year after Mayor Curry promised the city’s Confederate monuments would be taken down. Some action has been taken — James Weldon Johnson Park, where Johnson spoke Thursday, has been renamed, and the Confederate soldier that topped its central monument has been removed, leaving a barren column behind. Some Confederate monuments remain, including one in Springfield Park and one in the Old City Cemetery. Other markers and street names remain as well. 

“If it goes the way I want it, we will finally once and for all get the Confederacy off of Welfare,” Johnson said. 

If the suit is successful, it could block funding to maintain Confederate monuments nationwide. 

In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for DeSantis said the Governor’s Office has not been served nor received a copy of the complaint. “Once received, the Governor’s Office will review and respond appropriately in court,” the spokesman said.  

Curry’s office did not reply to a request for comment by the time of this story’s publication.  This story will be updated if a response is  provided. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.