Editorial: To represent Florida in U.S. Capitol, pick educator Bethune

State Sen. Perry Thurston has the right idea in pushing for a likeness of educator and civil rights pioneer Mary McCleod Bethune to replace Florida’s statue in the U.S. Capitol of a second-tier Confederate general who spent all his adult life outside the state.

Every state is entitled to place statues of two of its most venerated citizens in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. One of the Florida sculptures is of John Gorrie, the Florida doctor who invented an early form of air-conditioning, probably the single biggest boon to Florida’s growth, ever.

The other is of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who was born in St. Augustine but fought all his Civil War battles outside the state and spent his post-war years as an educator in Tennessee, where he died and is buried. He is best known, if it can be called that, for being the last Confederate general to surrender.

This is not a partisan issue. Last year, the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature voted to remove the Smith statue, which was installed in 1922, when segregation was the rule of the South; eight other Confederates are enshrined with him in the Capitol of the country they battled to maintain the South’s right to enslave black people.

But the Legislature hasn’t yet decided which Floridian should take the general’s place. Lots of names have been suggested: Walt Disney, Henry Flagler, Zora Neale Hurston, Thomas Edison, John Ringling, Chief Osceola. In addition to Bethune, top contenders include Everglades preservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Publix founder George Jenkins Jr.

RELATED: Educator, environmentalist, Publix founder make Florida statue list

But Thurston, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, is promoting the best candidate in Bethune, the daughter of former slaves who founded a school for black girls in Daytona Beach that became Bethune-Cookman University, and who later became a civil rights adviser to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

As Thurston said in a recently penned op-ed: “Bethune’s life and values illustrate the best of Florida. Choosing her likeness for the Hall would send a powerful signal to the world that Floridians recognize our state’s rich history and its present-day diversity.”

Choosing her would also break a shameful barrier in a Capitol collection of mostly white men. Although a native Hawaiian, six Native Americans and two Hispanics are depicted, the representations include no black people.

Thurston has drafted a resolution backing Bethune for the 2018 legislative session, which begins in January. A previous proposal during the contentious 2017 session made it through the Senate but got nowhere in the House.

RELATED: Democratic candidates for governor urge removal of Confederate statues

At the same time as the Legislature decides on a substitute for the bronze Rebel general, it should heed calls from Democrats and the Florida NAACP to relocate a Confederate statue monument that stands on the state Capitol grounds in Tallahassee. Gov. Rick Scott says this should be a decision for the Legislature – which starts holding pre-session committee meetings as soon as Sept. 12.

The Tallahassee monument, erected in 1992, lists Civil War battles fought by Confederate soldiers from Leon County. Those sacrifices shouldn’t be forgotten. But the tribute belongs in a museum, not the seat of state government in the 21st century.

On this point, we agree with Chis King, a Winter Park businessman who is one of the Democratic candidates for governor: “To those who say these monuments are needed to preserve our history, I say we don’t need memorials celebrating this dark time in our history.”

Far better that we celebrate a woman whose devotion to education – and whose faith that a subjugated and underestimated people could rise and achieve – embodies the real promise of America.

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