Charlottesville reignites fight over Confederate symbols
FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — The images from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in upheaval and death led James Muwakkil to a Robert E. Lee statue in Fort Myers.
Muwakkil, the president of the NAACP in Lee County, placed an American flag at the statue on Monroe Street.
It was his way, he said, to remind others that America is for everyone. The Charlottesville rally also reignited Muwakkil’s resolve to have the statue and the portrait of Lee removed from public places in Lee County, which is named for the Confederate general.
“When it comes to the Confederate memorabilia or symbols or what have you, they may be good for some, but they are hurtful to others,” Muwakkil said. “I don’t think that we should stand for it. I don’t think we should go along with it. I don’t think anyone should believe that we should support that part of America’s history.”
Muwakkil has previously attempted to change a Lee portrait hanging in county commission chambers but failed. He didn’t want the general to be depicted in his Confederate uniform. He said he has learned since then and plans to address Fort Myers city officials and the county commission about the issue in the fall.
This time around, Muwakkil said, he will reach out to other Lee County organizations to gain their support.
In Charlottesville, it was a student who started a petition to remove the statue of Lee from Emancipation Park that led to a 3-2 vote for removing it. The white supremacist rally was a response to its removal.
“We can’t believe in an America that celebrates hate and at the same time say to the rest of the world we are a beacon of hope for the huddled masses,” Muwakkil said, referring to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty that welcomes immigrants to the country.
For Muwakkil, the Lee statue is linked to the lack of representation of minorities on the county’s school board and county commission.
“I think it is very important that people begin to realize this type of moral evolution is part of what the Constitution guarantees, and so we will be exercising our rights to say we want to be treated equally under the law,” he said.
“We will have to see when it comes,” said Fort Myers Councilman Forrest Banks. He declined to say how he felt about the matter.
Councilwoman Teresa Watkins Brown said the statue has been there since she was a child.
“Our county was named after Robert E. Lee,” Watkins Brown said. “He’s a part of our history. I’m just one vote but it would be up to the council to vote on it.”
“I’m not always proud of what happened in our history,” she added.
Robert A. Gates, the commander of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Muwakkil tries every few years to remove the portrait. Gates, an Air Force veteran, said his organization had nothing to do with what happened in Virginia.
“We don’t want any part of that; we never have,” Gates said. “We are just here to protect history.”
David McCallister, Florida Division Chief of Heritage Operations for the Sons of Confederate Soldiers, said the Lee County NAACP was exploiting the turmoil in Charlottesville.
“This has been happening,” McCallister said. “It was kicked off by the actions of the mayor of New Orleans. The backlash is being felt in Charlottesville. What was sown in New Orleans is being reaped in Charlottesville.”
New Orleans removed a Confederate monument in May.
McCallister said all veterans - Confederate or not - deserve respect.
“Their monuments and the things named after them deserve the respect and honor of all American veterans,” he said.
But Muwakkil disagrees. While Confederate symbols represent pride in history for some, for him they symbolize a life of chattel slavery.
“We did not enjoy that type of South,” Muwakkil said. “It represents us being denied the basic freedoms and guarantees of equality and justice that this country was built upon.”