The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is seeking the removal of removal of a mural containing a depiction of Ku Klux Klan riders from the Baker County Courthouse in Macclenny in Northeast Florida.
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is calling for the immediate removal of a mural containing a depiction of Ku Klux Klan riders from the Baker County Courthouse in Macclenny.
The statewide organization with 1,200-plus members says the Baker County Courthouse mural, which depicts KKK riders, is "a reprehensible reminder of an unjust and racist past in our area."
The association is calling on Chief Judge James P. Nilon of the 8th Judicial Circuit — which includes Baker County — to order the immediate removal of the entire 135-square foot mural.
"This mural is anathema to our system of justice and depicts everything a judicial system should oppose: racial discrimination, racial supremacy, terrorism and vigilantism," Mitch Stone, a Jacksonville attorney and president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Monday.
The mural, located prominently inside the courthouse in Macclenny, was painted 19 years ago with the intention of illustrating significant events in the history of the small, rural county north of Jacksonville.
Three KKK riders in white robes and hoods on horseback are depicted in one section of the mural.
Stone and other association members were stunned to realize the illustration was in the courthouse mural.
"This is not a museum. This is a courthouse," Stone said. "A mural depicting the KKK is not educational. It is not something people need to be reminded of as they enter the courthouse to judge or to be judged."
The mural is a "shocking and offensive depiction of the worst part of American history … and no one should be subjected to a public display that glorifies segregation or racial superiority," association members say.
Stone and other association members hope Nilon will act quickly to have the mural removed. Nilon didn’t return two Times-Union voice mail messages left at his office Monday.
Baker County Manager Sara Little declined comment and referred the Times-Union to County Commission Chairman James G. Bennett, who couldn’t be reached for comment.
The mural has been the focus of contention on-and-off since its unveiling in 2001, the Times-Union reported in 2015 when controversy again surrounded it.
Illustrating 43 vignettes of Baker County history, the mural was painted by the late Eugene Barber, a founding member of the county's historical society.
At that time, then-Chief Judge Stan Morris said he didn't want criminal defendants to face depictions of the Klan while they awaited trials.
Even if the depiction was historical, Morris said, the Klan contradicts the mission of the court: fair justice.
County leaders then moved the mural to the first floor of the combination courthouse and government office building so it faces the entry doors.
Barber wrote an accompanying historical guide to the mural, and he gave a guestbook so people could offer their opinions.
"When the group known as the 'Radical Republicans' gained control of the state in 1868, the Reconstruction program took an unpleasant turn. ... The reversed order was severely resented by a large segment of the white population. Lawlessness among ex-slaves and troublesome whites was the rule of the day. No relief was given by the carpetbag and scalawag government or by the Union troops. The result was the emergence of secret societies claiming to bring law and order to the county. One of these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that sometimes took vigilante justice to extremes but was sometimes the only control the county knew over those outside the law. The Klan faded from view at the end of Reconstruction. It had minor come-backs in the 1920's and mid 1950's. Since then it has become the subject of legend rather than a cause of fear."
The KKK illustration is small, doesn’t have a prominent place in the mural and can be easy to overlook.
Mural supporters have staunchly defended the artwork , including the KKK depiction because it documents a period in the county’s history.
In 2015, John Phillips, a Jacksonville lawyer known for taking on high-profile cases, described the mural as offensive and said it should be taken down.
Nonetheless, the mural remains intact and in place.
Stone said he is "a firm believer in history, and that you learn from your history. But part of the equation of history is when you document something and place it in context, it has a time and place."
A museum is a perfect place for the mural, Stone said because it will allow people to come view it and express their views of it.
"But in a courthouse where Lady Justice is supposed to prevail, where everybody is supposed to get an equal, fair shake, a mural depicting a vigilante group that is opposed to equal rights and opposed to equal justice, shouldn’t be in that building," Stone said.
Stone said as of Monday, they had not received a response from Nilon.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.