Orlando Confederate Statue to Watch Over the Dead

Five prominent Confederate state flags depicted in a postcard for sale at the American Civil War Museum, Richmond, Va.

Orlando’s Confederate statue, known as “Johnny Reb,” will be moved to a new home watching over the dead in Greenwood Cemetery, in the Confederate section appropriately enough.

There is no timetable for moving the statue, which has been stationed at Lake Eola for about 100 years. Ironically, Johnny Reb is in poor condition and may get a cleaning and repair, thanks to the progressives who want him banished.

The Orlando City Council voted 4-3 to remove the statue, a vote symbolic of how the Civil War still divides the nation more than 150 years after it ended. Mayor Buddy Dyer, and Commissioners Patty Sheehan, Sam Ing and Regina Hill were in the majority, while Commissioners Jim Gray, Robert Stuart and Tony Ortiz were in the minority.

Dyer said the solution “balances the inclusive morals of our community today, while carefully preserving historic artifacts from our past that can be used to further educate and serve as important lessons in today’s society,” as quoted in the Orlando Sentinel.

No Record of Hearing

There is no record of the actual hearing, which was pushed by former Orlando Sentinel colleague David Porter, because it was not an agenda item and the nearly two-hour video of the City Council’s May 15 meeting ends with the last item concerning medical marijuana.

Before the Confederate hearing, Ortiz, representing heavily Hispanic District 2,  announced his “philosophy” on the subject. “We have soldiers that have served in all kinds of wars and we have to respect that,” he said.

Ortiz Is Against

It’s not surprising that Ortiz would vote against removing the Confederate statue for he often votes against social issues such as this. He was the lone City Council vote against gay marriage, for example, explaining that it was against his values. And he cannot bring himself to put up a plaque in District 2 honoring the late community activist Rico Piccard, a plaque that was approved by the state. In at least these three regards, Ortiz appears to be out of sync with his district.

The Front Lines

But Ortiz has a point about people who fight wars. Lots of enlisted or drafted soldiers have found themselves in the front lines of battle confused about why they are there. The Viet Nam War is a 20th century example. Iraq and Afghanistan are others.

It’s fair to say that many Johnny Rebs fought in the War Between the States without fully understanding why, except that it was the thing to do in the South.  (Many Civil War battlefields, such as Appomattox, are hauntingly sad.)

The South fought to defend its right to own slaves and to expand the peculiar franchise to new states joining the union. The policy benefitted the landed gentry but also the entire economy of the South founded as it was on the slave labor of blacks. The complicity of the North – its financial institutions and great universities awash in money generated by the slave trade or economy – is only now coming into focus, revealing that the entire nation is indebted to slaves.

Historical Context

The historical context is too nuanced for many defenders of all things Confederate, including the flag (of which there are several versions, by the way). First a symbol of battle, the meaning of the Confederate flag and other symbols has been lost over time, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s as the civil rights movement ratcheted up.

If it was once a symbol of history and heritage, the Confederate flag is now seen as a symbol appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups without much pushback from others.

“There are people who have confronted that flag in the hands of people who have meant to do them harm or at least want to deny them their basic civil rights,” explains John M. Coski, official historian of the American Civil War Museum. And I would add deny people their basic humanity.

Divisive Meaning

That is the divisive meaning of the flag to millions of people, particularly blacks, whose full equality means they shouldn’t have to confront these symbols daily in public spaces.

It is time for Johnny Rebel and company in Orlando and across the South to put down their rifles and flags and go home so that all of us may live and breathe freely.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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