BY DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
After nearly three hours of emotional testimony Tuesday about a Confederate flag rippling just outside, the Walton County Commission decided on a “compromise” that will do away with the banner but left one side fuming.
In a surprise move, the commission opted to remove the Confederate battle flag — bearing the iconic Southern Cross — from the lawn in front of the county courthouse and replace it with the “first flag of the confederacy,” a flag bearing three stripes and 13 stars representing the states that seceded from the Union.
“The soil of Walton County has been enriched with the blood and sweat of the people who came before every one of us, some who fought and died in the war between the states,” Commissioner Sara Comander, who made what she called a “compromise” motion to switch the flags, said. “This is a difficult decision for all of us up here. I want to honor all of those who came before us. But I also want to be cognizant of those that the present flag seems to offend.”
Comander’s motion opened the floor to an overflowing commission meeting room packed with people wearing “Take Down the Flag” buttons or T-shirts bearing the Confederate flag. Dozens of pickup trucks flying oversized flags were parked outside.
Tuesday’s vote, which came after the commission postponed action on the item at a meeting two weeks ago, prompted testimony from about 50 people, many of them black and most in favor of taking the flag down, saying that the emblem was a painful reminder of slavery.
“To me, the Confederate flag is a symbol of rebellion, hatred and painful superiority,” Tyrone Broadus, a black pastor, told the four commissioners at the meeting. “They say it’s about heritage. … But it symbolizes the desire to keep my people in bondage.”
But Casey Nelson, a 35-year-old DeFuniak Springs woman wearing a T-shirt with the Confederate flag and the motto “Heritage not Hate,” urged the commission to keep the flag where it was.
“If you change it, we’re fine with that. We need to honor our ancestors,” Nelson said.
Nearly all of the Confederate flag supporters agreed with Nelson that swapping the flags would be fine.
The battle flag has been flying since 1964 on the county courthouse lawn above a monument to Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. The county was one of dozens of Southern localities that erected the controversial flag the same year that Congress approved the Civil Rights Act. Many believe the flags were flown to protest the law.
In 2001, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ordered the divisive flag to be removed from its perch on the state Capitol grounds.
Gov. Rick Scott’s office said that the removal of the flag on county grounds was a local government issue but issued a statement regarding the state’s handling of the controversial symbol.
“In Florida, the flag was removed under Governor Bush — and that was the right thing to do in our state,” Gov. Rick Scott’s spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.
The controversy over the flag has created a schism, even among neighbors, in the county that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alabama border, spurring competing online petitions and sparking a Confederate-flag truck parade over the weekend.
Many affluent Tallahassee residents own second homes in the beachfront communities in the southern part of the county, while many of the state’s most-conservative residents — whose roots go back beyond the Civil War — live in the northern portion of the county.
Commissioner Bill Chapman made — and later withdrew — a motion to remove the flag altogether and put it in a museum nearby.
“It should be removed from government property,” Chapman said, adding that he was aware that his view could cost him his seat. “I know you’re looking at next year’s elections, and I know this is going to probably hurt me.”
For many black Walton County residents, the flag approved as a compromise is just as bad. It was the first official flag of the Confederate states.
“It’s ridiculous,” James Huffman, who is black, said later. “I consider it a cop-out.”
Earlier, Huffman told the commission that he had grown up in Alabama, where he “learned about that flag before I learned about this one,” pointing to the U.S. flag hanging behind the commission dais.
“To me and the people where I lived, this flag meant terror. Absolute terror,” he said.
Before the vote, Commissioner Cindy Meadows blamed “outside sources” for pushing the issue “to advance an agenda.”
“It’s worked,” she said. “This is a compromise. Anything else, in my opinion, is kowtowing to people pushing to divide this community.”
Meadows would not say to whom she was referring when asked about the “outsiders.”
Daniel Uhlfelder, a lawyer who lives in Santa Rosa Beach, has been trying for 12 years to have the flag removed. In 2002, the commission unanimously decided to leave it up. Uhlfelder renewed his attempt in the wake of the shooting deaths of nine black churchgoers in Charleston. Some states, and many local communities throughout the South, have removed the flags in the aftermath of the race-related shootings.
Uhlfelder said he was in the nation’s capital with his young children and wife taking a tour of the White House as the debate over the flag raged back home Tuesday.
In a telephone conversation with The News Service of Florida, Uhlfelder said the issue isn’t over.
“It’s not really a compromise. A compromise is when both sides are equally unhappy. It’s pretty clear that the pro-flag people are pretty pleased with this decision,” Uhlfelder, whose family has owned property in the county for nearly three decades, said.
But County Commission Chairman Bill Imfeld said that he and his colleagues opted for the alternate flag as a way to unite the community.
“We’re trying to ameliorate some of the heartfelt misgivings about the flag that’s out there now,” Imfeld said after the meeting. “We all wanted to find a way to make it so that it’s not a win-lose type situation. We tried to do the best that we can for all of Walton County. That’s what it came down to.”
Imfeld, who relocated to Florida from upstate New York, said that “as a Yankee,” he was unfamiliar with the “compromise” flag until recently and predicted that it would be unlikely to incite the feelings of animosity as the current banner.
“If I saw that flag, I would have no idea that it was a Confederate flag. And I don’t think a lot of people will realize that,” he said.
The county will replace the flag as soon as a new flag is ordered and delivered, spokesman Louis Svhela said.
Leaning against a pickup truck waving a giant Confederate flag, Greg Walters said he was pleased with the decision.
“That’s good. It’s still a Confederate flag, and it respects the fallen soldiers,” he said