After years of debate on a controversial mural that hangs inside the Baker County Courthouse, the county’s commissioners voted Tuesday to explore options for its relocation.
“I’m honestly genuinely shocked,” said Da’Jah Roberts, who created a recent petition to rehome the mural that received over 1,700 signatures. “I did not expect them to even come to any kind of conclusion that fast. I honestly thought we'd be having to fight this for a couple of months. So I'm honestly really thankful they finally realized that this is a national embarrassment.”
In recent weeks, the controversial art has received statewide and national attention. The Washington Post published a story on the mural, which has a portion of it that depicts three Ku Klux Klan members riding on horseback. It hangs right at the entrance of the courthouse in Macclenny, a town about 30 miles west of Jacksonville.
The Baker County Commission held a public comment period two weeks before commissioners voiced their own opinions. At the meeting, they heard from dozens who were both for and against the mural’s relocation.
On Tuesday night, however, the majority of the voices heard before the vote were supportive of the mural’s removal.
“This was a Baker County thing completely. It took lots of good minds, good hearts, good souls, to bring this to where it needs to be...it’s a group effort,” Roberts said.
County Commissioner Jimmy Anderson sparked the discussion to relocate the mural, saying that the imagery depicted in that portion of the mural was something he was completely against.
“I've lost a lot of sleep. I've done a lot of praying. I've talked to a lot of people in our community, and I just don't think that this is what we want Baker County to represent,” Anderson said.
Anderson said that while he believes history should be shared and expressed, the Baker County Courthouse was not the right place for it to hang. Commissioner Cathy Rhoden agreed.
“We want unity amongst our community, and the Bible says to not do anything to offend your brother, and the KKK definitely offends people, [and] it offends me for what it stood for,” Rhoden said.
A couple of the commissioners suggested a referendum to let county residents vote on what they wanted to see happen to the mural, but Commission Chair James Bennett said he was against taking it to the polls.
“The citizens of this county elected us to make decisions,” Bennett said. “The decision to put that mural up was not a decision made by the entire county, so I can just tell you up front, I'm not in favor of trying to put together something on a ballot to make a decision. That's what we're here for… we represent the citizens. If the decisions we make isn't what they believe they certainly have the right to change us.”
Commissioners Rhoden, Anderson and Steele voted to explore options of relocation. Commissioners Bennett and James Croft did not weigh in with a vote.
Mitch Stone, a Jacksonville criminal justice attorney and President of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said this moves Baker County in the right direction.
“Whether or not they agree that the KKK was not a good organization for that community is not the issue,” Stone said. “The issue is, how would somebody feel coming into a courthouse where justice is being dispensed and where they are faced and confronted with a mural that depicts the KKK in a romanticized glorified vision?”
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which includes more than 1,200 members, called for the immediate removal of the mural last week.
The commission decided they won’t have the mural removed until they’ve found a new home to place it in. Ideas from public comments in previous meetings included the Baker County Historical Society and the Old Baker County Jail.
The mural was created in 2001 by local journalist and historian Eugene Barber, and has been met with controversy for years.
Sky Lebron can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.