I grew up in a racially divided Lakeland, FL in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s of my childhood, racial division, hate, and the fear of change, were daily topics of adult conversation. That chatter often spilling over to ears of children denounced the big, bad government and colored people who “didn’t know their place.”
In the town square known as Munn Park, the 26 feet tall marble monument to the Confederacy looked defiantly over the park’s separate water fountains (one with a “Whites Only” sign). Separate restrooms for whites and blacks next to the park served as a constant reminder that old fears, hates and prejudices were alive in this town. And, sad to say, still are today. Even after that big bad government got rid of the separate water fountains and restrooms, this cold symbol of treason against our United States (the country my dad served in WWII when he helped defeat the Nazis) still stands on public property.
Oh yes, it was a glorious day for the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Third Brigade of the Confederate Veterans who gathered in the park that June 3, 1910. They celebrated the dedication of the monument by listening to a speech by then Florida Attorney-General, Park Trammel. The event took place, not coincidentally, on the birthday of the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
But, today, do we not know better? Have we learned nothing from our history? I remember well the things that I heard and witnessed growing up in Lakeland, FL.
I remember the sit-in at the drugstore a few miles from Munn Park on Memorial Blvd. where blacks were not allowed service at the counter where burgers, shakes, etc., were served. And there was a night when black people protesting segregation at the Polk Theater, just a couple of blocks from Munn Park, with its symbol of segregation and disrespect to black citizens, were viciously attacked. I was standing across the street with other onlookers watching the protest when I saw it happen. I felt sickened at the noticeable lack of police response.
A restaurant located on Florida Ave. just a short distance north of the Polk Theater, Howell’s Lunch and Bakery, owned by my uncle, was the scene of a protest. Three black women dared to enter a white owned restaurant in Lakeland, FL to buy lunches. I was there too, and I watched as they were thrown out.
I remember well the muddy/dusty roads of the predominantly black residential area behind my uncle’s small business and extending north through those numbered streets. That area, known in those days as Lakeland’s Nigger Town, had no paved streets because the city refused to pave them. Those roads were ignored until the Civil Rights Movement began to force change and the tax paying black citizens- who worked and who served in our military- got paved streets.
My uncle, the same one who refused to serve black people in his restaurant, would hand me a cardboard box during the summers and send me down those dusty/muddy roads to sell donuts, brownies and other pastries. Even as a boy, I could hear children ahead of me shouting, “White man coming.”
As I passed the humble homes on those dirt roads, I encountered wonderful people who gave me ice water, tea and sometimes lemonade, and bought my offerings.
Those people — fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers – treated me with kindness and generosity. They all helped plant seeds of empathy and a spirit of human decency in the heart and mind of the man who would one day write this essay.
Honoring the Confederacy and its participants is to honor treason. Allowing this monument to stand any longer is a disgrace. By allowing it to stand, you are paying homage to the worst institution in human history…slavery. How hypocritical to fly the American flag in the same park!
Preserving our country’s history so that we might learn from it is what books and museums are for. Instead of an idol to a dead institution let us honor and give reverence to our patriots and their moral principles. Take down this shameful false idol. Replace it with a memorial to those brave individuals, like my dad, who served the United States of America…our veterans. Honor them.
To those who will make the decision: if you fail to do the right thing now, and do not remove the Confederate Memorial from Munn Park, your lack of courage will haunt you through all the years ahead.