Escambia County will no longer fly the Confederate battle flag or the Spanish, French or British flags at the Pensacola Bay Center. After an emotional discussion, the Board of County Commissioners voted 4-1 to remove the five-flag display from the county property and replace it with the U.S. flag.
Pointing to the U.S. flag behind his seat in the commission chambers, Commissioner Doug Underhill said, “This is the flag that I wore on my uniform when I went into harm’s way. This is the flag that is draped over the coffins of our soldiers when they are returned home. This is flag that we all swear our oaths under. This is the flag of Escambia County.”
Underhill’s statement came after dozens of statements from the audience both for and against keeping at least some form of the Confederacy flag at the Pensacola Bay Center, the only county property that flew all five flags.
At the public forum before the regular meeting, all the comments were in opposition to the Confederate battle flag.
Catrina Ramos presented the board 175 petitions to take down the Confederate flag. “The flag symbolizes hate, disenfranchisement and the great divide in our nation,” she said. “We hold our graduations at the civic center. When I walk out and see that flag, it tells me that I don’t matter, my accomplishments don’t matter.”
Diane Krumel talked about the race riots in Escambia during the 1970s and how the Confederate flag was part of them when Escambia High changed its team name from “Rebels” to “Gators.” “It divides Escambia County,” she said. “The flag is another thorn in the side of Escambia County.”
Rev. Julie Cain put an armband with a Nazi swastika on her arm and said that it, too, symbolizes hate. Though it’s part of German history, that flag is not flown in Germany today.
“The Confederate flags has multiple meanings, but it is associated with a very racist regime,” said Cain. “It is a very inappropriate for a public building and encourages hatred and racist acts.”
The county commission had several items on its agenda before it discussed the Confederate battle flag. When the item came up, several citizens, mostly members of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, spoke in favor of replacing the battle flag with either the first or third flag used by the Confederacy.
Attorney Tommy Ratchford argued the third flag was the proper flag, because the first flag, which is flown by the city of Pensacola, isn’t readily identifiable as being associated with the Confederacy.
“Every flag (of the five flown) had a tie to slavery,” he said.
Retired Marine Col. Jim Smith said the first flag was only Confederate flag that actually flew over the city of Pensacola during the 18 months before it surrendered to the Union.
Richard Mills called the battle flag the “Soldiers Flag,” and said it honors our heritage and the lives of the men who fought and died in that war. He asked the board not to take down the flag because of political correctness.
Albee Smith, commander of the local chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy, that his organization is the only one that has the right to interpret the meaning of the battle flag. He said that unlike the American flag, the Confederate flag never flew over a slave ship, concentration camp that held American citizens or when Indians were massacred.
Larry William, a Navy veteran, said the he and Col. Smith both served their country. They are not asking the county to fly the Marine Corps or U.S. Navy flags to honor those who died while in those uniforms.
Pam Smith said she was concerned about political correctness. “Political correctness is so damaging because it’s asking us to take away our history and that’s just wrong,’ she said. “Where does it end? What will you be asked to do next?
After the citizens spoke, the commissioner weighed in. Grover Robinson, who was the commissioner who brought forth the discussion item, talked about his family’s history, which included ancestors that fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War. He also talked about his grandfather who fought for the rights of his African-American clients in the 1950s and who later became a judge.
“I’ve seen both sides of this issue,” said Commissioner Robinson. “I don’t see how we can continue to fly the battle flag.”
He made the motion to replace the battle flag with the first flag used by the Confederacy – “Stars & Bars.” “For the past 15 years, this is the flag used by the city of Pensacola, Fiesta of Five Flags, Five Flags Speedway, and (pointing to a member in the audience) our church,” said the commissioner.
Before Robinson received a second to his motion, Commissioner Lumon May offered an substitute motion, asking the board to first agree to take down the battle flag before deciding what other flag to fly. His motion passed 5-0.
Commissioner Robinson made a motion for the first flag, but didn’t receive a second. Commissioner Wilson Robertson said he preferred the third flag.
In 2000, Commissioner Robertson made the motion to fly that battle flag at the civic center, and a few of the citizens questioned his decision. The commissioner responded to his critics.
“I’m proud of my Southern heritage,” said Robertson. “I will not apologize for my vote (in 2000). “
He pointed out that all five commissioners voted for the flag, including Willie Junior, the lone African-American commissioner in 2000 – “so he, too, thought it was the right decision at the time.”
“To compare the battle flag to the Nazi swastika is absurd,” said Commissioner Robertson. “(Confederate veterans) deserve as soldiers and veterans to be honored.”
At that point, Commissioner Underhill made his statement about the U.S. flag is the only flag of Escambia County. Commissioner May seized the moment and made the motion to take down the remaining flags, except for the U.S. flag.
“That is the flag that flies over every other county building,” said May. “It’s flag that our children pledge allegiance to in school.”
When it was clear that May and Underhill had the support of the majority of the board, Commissioner Robinson asked that they simply rescind the previous action that took down only the Confederate battle flag and vote in one motion to take down at the Pensacola Bay Center all flags except that U.S. flag.
The motion passed 4-1, with Commissioner Wilson Robertson voting against the motion.