Enslaved Floridians memorial, civil rights statue needed symbols, activists say

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A memorial to enslaved Floridians and a plan to replace a Confederate general's statue with a civil rights activist are moving forward in this year's legislative session. 

Many believe the honors are long overdue.

As Floridians at the state Capitol celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday Monday, they reflected on how far the state has come since the 1960s.

“We're all in. We're committed to the dream,” Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil said.

Part of moving forward is acknowledging the mistakes of the past. It’s the idea behind a proposal in the state Legislature to construct a monument honoring the contributions of enslaved Floridians.

Activists at the rally said it would be a powerful gesture.

“I feel like it would be a good way to show that, that was a part of our history, and we need to remember that,” said Terence McCrey of Daytona Beach.

Others agreed that it would be a needed symbol.

“I think that's great in stepping forward and showing that we want to right the wrong,” Tallahassee resident Fran Barber said.

There’s also a proposal to replace the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, which represents Florida at the U.S. Capitol. The top choice for a new statue is civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. 

“[It's] something that would represent what Martin Luther King represented,” Tallahassee resident Polly Spears said.

While the statutes would be symbolic gestures, honoring how far the state has come, people said Monday that much more needs to be done.

The top issue they pointed to was the state’s clemency backlog.

“Make things come to pass so these people can have the rights that everybody else has,” Tallahassee Pastor Quincy Griffin said.

At least 1.5 million people in the state are unable to vote due to felony convictions. At least eight proposals up for consideration this year look to reform the state’s clemency process.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, wants to see the state use its $87 billion budget to help disenfranchised communities.

“Those issues are extremely important for us to make a difference in Florida,” Lawson said.

State lawmakers go home in early March. If the monuments win ultimate approval, it will be in time for the 50th anniversary of King's assassination on April 4.