Selvage: After Charlottesville, Commission Can’t Ignore Munn Park Monument

confederate soldierDeclaring that City Hall can no longer wish away the divisive issue of the Confederate monument in Munn Park, Don Selvage said today he will open a discussion with his fellow city commissioners at their meeting on Monday.

Selvage said at this morning’s meeting of the Downtown Development Authority, where he is the City Commission representative, that he knows the issue is highly emotional and an eventual decision either to keep the monument in place or move it somewhere else would anger a large number of residents.

But he said the attention to Confederate monuments since last week’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., forces Lakeland commissioners to confront the issue: “I intend to tell my colleagues Monday we can’t keep our heads in the sand.”

He asked other LDDA board members whether they wanted to advise the commission on the issue, but the consensus of the group was to first poll their constituents, downtown property owners, on the issue.

The monument featuring an anonymous rebel soldier was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1910. Its inscription reads in part: “The heroic deeds will never fade, from memory’s brightest page, and their brave defense of country and home, is left as a glorious heritage.”

Commissioners brushed aside requests to move the monument made by residents in September 2015 and July 2016. During those discussions, no commissioner spoke in favor of moving the statue.

However, the commission rebuked a citizen proposal in May that would have made it more difficult to move or alter a monument. That proposed ordinance would have required public hearings before changes could be made, but commissioners said that their current procedures already ensure public hearings.

Selvage said he first heard the issue raised a few years ago when a Massachusetts man wrote a letter saying his son was impressed with Florida Southern College during a campus tour but decided against attending after seeing the Confederacy glorified downtown.

Last year, Selvage received a letter from a resident who wished to remain anonymous who offered to build a performance pavilion in the center of Munn Park that would require moving the monument. The commissioners, noting that they received emotional letters and emails to preserve the statue, concluded the time wasn’t right to open debate on emotionally charged issues involving the appropriate way to portray the Confederacy.

While Selvage told LDDA board members today that he didn’t think either side of the monument debate would be satisfied with a “middle ground” approach, he offered a few compromise options after the meeting:

  • An African-American minister suggested that a cultural heritage walk be created downtown that would include artwork celebrating a variety of ethnic groups who contributed to Lakeland’s development.
  • Add a plaque to the monument explaining background, including that the soldier faces east as a sign of conciliation rather than north as a sign of defiance and that he stands at parade rest, not military readiness.

The commissioner said he was encouraged that a solution might be found after he received a phone call from a past president of the Daughters of the American Revolution who said she’d support moving the statue to a place where it would be shown respect.

(In Tampa, the president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy Florida Division recently told Fox 13 News she supports moving the monument her organization erected at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in 1911.)

While many people have suggested moving the statue to Veterans Park west of the RP Funding Center, Selvage doesn’t think that site is appropriate. Veterans Park is built on land where the predominantly African-American community of Moorehead existed before the RP Funding Center was built during the early 1970s, he explained.

Selvage said as the son of somebody who fought the Nazis during World War II, he was shocked to see images of young neo-Nazis inciting violence in Charlottesville during protests of the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Some people are urging city commissioners to “leave the issue alone,” Selvage said, but after last week’s violence in Charlottesville, “that’s no longer an option.”

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In a related story, Lakeland Police Chief Larry Giddens said his department is taking seriously a message that appears to be from the hacker group Anonymous asking people to “tear down symbols of hate” at 11 locations including Munn Park.

LPD officers have monitored Munn Park closely in recent days and will have an officer on hand at 6 p.m. Friday, the time specified in the online post, Giddens said.