As Republican presidential contenders scramble to adjust to the shifting politics of the Confederate flag debate in South Carolina, one candidate can point back to his own actions on the issue more than a decade ago.
With neither warning nor fanfare, then-Gov. Jeb Bush unilaterally removed the Confederate “Stainless Banner” from the grounds of the Florida Capitol in early 2001. It had flown alongside the French, Spanish, and British ensigns, all of which had at various points controlled Florida. All the flags and their poles had come down for some renovation work, and when it was completed, the flags were instead sent a few blocks away to the Florida Museum of History.
Richard Lee, from the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Florida Division, still hasn’t forgiven him.
“He’s a typical Yankee,” Lee, now 75, told National Journal. “Coming down to the South and trying to tell us how to run things.”
Bush, who is actually a native of Midland, Texas, explained his decision at a Black History Month reception at the Florida Governor’s Mansion two weeks after Confederate groups noticed the flag was gone and started complaining. “I thought it was appropriate to take those flags down and put them in the museum where people can appreciate our heritage, but not have them fly as a symbol of what we are today as a state,” he said at the time.
Bush last week officially declared his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination. In 1998, when he won the governorship for the first time, he won double-digit support from black voters. Some of that support evaporated in early 2000 after Bush’s controversial executive order to replace affirmative action programs with race-neutral policies that were nevertheless designed to increase minority participation in state contracts and state universities.
Bush’s history is back in the news following his Facebook post on the Confederate flag controversy that has flared up in South Carolina. Nine African Americans were gunned down at a Charleston church last week, and the accused killer is a white supremacist who posted images of himself with the Confederate flag.
“My position on how to address the Confederate flag is clear. In Florida, we acted, moving the flag from the state grounds to a museum where it belonged,” Bush wrote. “Following a period of mourning, there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward and I’m confident they will do the right thing.”
By “we” in his statement, Bush actually meant “I.” His action was taken without consulting the Florida Legislature or the elected Cabinet. He did, however, get the concurrence of then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose department ran the state museums.
Bush’s flag decision came a year after a Confederate flag controversy, again in South Carolina, dogged his brother’s presidential campaign in 2000. George W. Bush declared then that it was an issue for the people of that state. That was the year South Carolina moved the Confederate flag from the top of the state Capitol onto its own flagpole across the street.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Lee was among three dozen protesters who marched from the Tallahassee Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion in June 2001, chanting “Put the flag back” and singing “Dixie.”
“He was in the house, but he wouldn’t come out and talk to us,” Lee said of Bush. “I thought that was pretty cowardly”¦. We weren’t going to shoot him or nothing. We just wanted to talk to him and raise our concerns.”
Lee said he is a sixth-generation Floridian whose family owned slaves, and claimed that slaves for the most part had it better than today’s low-wage workers, who have to find housing and food for themselves. He acknowledged that some owners mistreated their slaves, just as some farmers mistreat their equipment, like tractors, today.
Lee, though, said that despite Bush’s actions in 2001, he still voted for him in his 2002 reelection because Bush had visited New Smyrna Speedway, near Lee’s home, during that campaign. “I never shook a governor’s hand before,” he said.
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