Temporary removal of Confederate-era flag from Walton County courthouse grounds not related to protest
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — The removal of a Confederate-era flag from a Civil War memorial on the Walton County Courthouse grounds was not related to a peaceful Sunday march by an estimated 500 people protesting police brutality across the nation, the county’s spokesman said Monday.
The protest brought about a dozen people, who said they were from groups including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Save our Southern Heritage, and Boots on the Ground Bikers for Trump, to the courthouse.
People in the group noted Sunday that Confederate monuments had been vandalized during protests, like Sunday’s march, that have arisen across the nation since May 25. That was the day 46-year-old George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee to Floyd’s neck despite no resistance from Floyd.
“We believe in peaceful protests, but we will not stand for vandalism,” Bernadette Pittman, one of the Bikers for Trump representatives said Sunday on the courthouse grounds.
There was, however, no meeting between the protesters and the people gathered at the courthouse, as rainy weather prompted a change in the route for the protest march. Instead of marching to the courthouse, the group went the other way, from Harbeson Field to a small park across from DeFuniak Springs City Hall.
The Confederate-era flag, along with other flags on the courthouse grounds, and flags at other government buildings across the county, was taken down in advance of stormy weather that brought rain and gusty winds to the area on Sunday, according to Louis Svehla, the county’s public information manager.
It is standard practice, Svehla said, for county building and grounds maintenance personnel to take down flags in advance of stormy weather to avoid having them damaged. All of the flags at the courthouse, including the Confederate-era banner, had been reinstalled as of Monday morning.
“The wind just shreds them,” Svehla said.
Svehla had initially — and erroneously, he said later — noted that the flags were removed form the courthouse grounds “probably because of the protest” in order not “to fan any kind of flames.”
Controversy continued to swirl around the Confederate memorial on the Walton County Courthouse grounds on Monday, the day after the Sunday protest, and also the day after an online petition seeking the removal of the “Confederate Flag” from the courthouse began circulating on the Change.org website.
The petition, addressed to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s state and congressional lawmakers, includes a photo of the Confederate battle flag — which had, in fact, flown previously at the courthouse Civil War memorial — but has been replaced by the first flag of the Confederate States of America.
The flag is part of a memorial that includes as its focal point a monument recognizing local Confederate troops who died in the Civil War. The monument was first erected in 1871 at Valley Church, becoming the first Civil War monument in the state of Florida. It was subsequently moved, first to the old county seat of Euchee Anna and later to the current county seat, DeFuniak Springs.
The Confederate battle flag — the familiar white stars on diagonal blue stripes on a red background — has been appropriated by white supremacist groups over the years. But the flag now flying at the Confederate memorial at the Walton County Courthouse is less well-known, featuring seven white stars, arranged in a circle on a blue field, accompanied by two red stripes and a central white stripe.
The seven stars represent the original seven states of the Confederacy — Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.
The Change.org petition itself notes that the Confederate battle flag was replaced with the first flag of the Confederate States of America in a July 2015 vote of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners — county voters opted in a 2018 referendum to keep that flag flying — but goes on to ask, “Why are we intentionally sending a message of support of terror and oppression to our citizens and the rest of the country?”
As of Monday afternoon, nearly 1,200 people had signed the petition. Citizen petitions, although not necessarily from Change.org, have played roles in previous decisions on flags at the Civil War memorial, Svehla said.
According to Svehla, the county had not as of Monday gotten any requests from any individual or group wanting to make their case in front of county commissioners.
That case could be made by anyone wishing to address the issue during a public comment period at a commission meeting, or by any person or group getting a place on a commission meeting agenda.
The next opportunity for that is the commission’s June 23 meeting, Svehla said, with a June 16 deadline for applying for a spot on the agenda.