Panel Backs Removing Confederate Flag From Florida Senate Seal

Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, highlighted post-Civil War rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that held the decision by 11 Southern states to secede from nation was illegal. Simmons said the Senate's seal should include the flags of "those sovereignties that were legitimate sovereignties of this state."
Credit State of Florida

Lawmakers took a step toward removing the Confederate battle flag from the Senate's official seal Thursday, as a committee unanimously voted to establish a new seal without the Civil War banner.

The Senate Rules Committee's recommendation, which follows a request by Senate President Andy Gardiner and Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner to re-examine the flag's place on the seal, is another sign of a backlash against the symbols of the South's rebellion in the 1860s. The backlash has come after a white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers in South Carolina this summer.

The new seal is likely to go to the full Senate in January, in the opening days of the annual legislative session. It would take effect if approved by a two-thirds vote of senators.

Under the proposal approved by the committee, the Senate's official insignia would still include other non-American flags that flew over Florida, including the 1513 Spanish flag, the 1564 French flag and the 1763 flag of Great Britain. The United States flag and the Florida state flag would also appear on the marker.

During a presentation to members of the panel, Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, highlighted post-Civil War rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that held the decision by 11 Southern states to secede from nation was illegal.

Simmons said the Senate's seal should include the flags of "those sovereignties that were legitimate sovereignties of this state."

But it was impossible to escape the shadow that the Confederate flag has long cast over the politics of Florida and other Southern states. For many white Southerners, the battle flag is a commemoration of the military service and sacrifice of ancestors who fought against the Union.

For African-Americans, though, the banner is often a painful reminder of the brutal, slave-driven economy that was a central issue in the 1860 to 1865 war. Increasingly, white politicians have also joined in asking for the flag to be taken down in public spaces and otherwise set aside as a symbol of regional pride.

Joyner, a black Democrat from Tampa, said after the meeting that the effort to remove the flag from the seal is not an effort to wipe out the memory of what happened during the Civil War.

"I can remember it without seeing it on my lapel every day," she told reporters after the meeting. "I mean, it's reminiscent of a painful period. It's time for healing, and I felt it was necessary to remove it."

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had an even blunter way of putting it.

"Well, it is part of history, but the Nazi flag is part of history and shouldn't be forgotten, but it also shouldn't be lifted up," he said.

Sen. Darren Soto, R-Orlando, pointed out several steps the Legislature has taken in recent years to promote racial reconciliation and bridge other gaps.

"It's time for us to have the seal be consistent with our values," Soto said. "We can't revise history and choose which moments in our history to forget. But we can choose what we highlight in our seal that's just and right."

But the action is unlikely to halt all discussion of how the state memorializes the Civil War. Joyner voiced hope that lawmakers would also consider legislation (SB 154 and HB 243) seeking to ban government buildings or properties from displaying any flag used by the Confederacy.

The House and Senate could also consider legislation to replace a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, whose likeness is one of two sculptures that represent the state in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.

News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.