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How a big city lawyer took on a small town Florida Confederate monument — and won

James Call
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau.
Winter Haven News Chief

Orlando-area attorney Charles Gee took to Facebook one recent Saturday to call the people of Gadsden County, Florida, to action.

His request: Take down a Confederate monument that had been in front of the county courthouse for 136 years.

“It’s going down,” Gee, a Gadsden native, said in a video. “Gadsden County, it’s coming down.”

And it did. The county commission earlier this month voted unanimously to remove the statue, and minutes later workers began to haul it away.

It was an unexpected achievement for the 38-year-old Gee, who grew up in Quincy. He had played around the statue and posed for photos in front of it as a child.

The words on the monument's base and the sentiments expressed by the Confederate officer carved on one of its panels had troubled him since he had learned how to read and reached an age of reason.

"It never felt right walking past a monument to people who fought to keep people like me enslaved," said the Florida A&M University College of Law graduate.

But he didn't say anything because he didn't think he was the right man for the job.

His thinking started to change on an April morning four years ago when he walked past the memorial to take the oath that made him a member of The Florida Bar.

Back story:Charles Gee, FAMU alum who survived six bullet wounds, honored by legal community

“For the first time I felt the power, that I had a voice to do something about it,” Gee explained. “Here I am celebrating this achievement that my ancestors fought for with the hope that one day I would be on the other side, in a sense of America’s promise.

“But I had to walk right by a monument that celebrated people who fought to keep me from being in this position,” Gee added.

But that insight did not translate into action at first. He had a practice to build in Orlando as a personal injury attorney.

His first year practicing law, he worked a case with Tallahassee attorney Mutaqee Akbar. Akbar tries cases in the Gadsden County Courthouse and realized a monument to the Confederate cause was standing in front of Florida's only minority-majority county.

But as an outsider, not a Gadsden County native, he knew he was not the right man for the job. Instead, he planted a seed in the mind of the young attorney and Quincy native.

At the conclusion of a meeting late in 2016 Akbar turned to Gee and asked, "What do you think of that statue at Courthouse Square, in your hometown, you know, the one that said it's to 'Our Fallen Heroes'?"

Gee said he was “embarrassed that somebody outside Gadsden County was asking me about that monument and I hadn’t spoken up.”

But still, he didn't speak up.

Then in May of this year, George Floyd's death triggered demonstrations nationwide. Protesters linked police killings of Black people to institutional racism they said was rooted in the Confederacy and the Jim Crow era.

More:George Floyd protests lead to reckoning as Black employees speak out

"My priorities changed," Gee said.

Monuments come down

Floyd died on May 25, and less than two weeks later, Gee drove up from Orlando and stood in the rain in front of the statue to declare it was coming down.

Three days after that, a petition drive had collected 4,000 signatures.

Two days later, the statue was gone.

“I didn’t think once he made a public push it would turn around that quickly," Akbar said.

Added Brenda Holt, vice chair of the Gadsden County Commission, "Those signatures helped a lot. It showed there was a unified effort to get it removed.” She made the motion to cart off the monument at the commission's June 11 meeting.

That night, cranes also moved into place to take down a Confederate monument in Jacksonville located between its city hall and federal courthouse.

And Lakeland and Orlando also have decided to relocate their Confederate monuments out of downtown parks to historic cemeteries. Nearly three dozen other communities across the country have made similar decisions in the past three weeks.

More:As America again looks at symbols, Florida Capitol’s Confederate memorial remains

Since the death of Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, at least 34 statues and monuments to the Confederacy, its generals, and leader Jefferson Davis have either been toppled by demonstrators or removed by local governments across the country, according to BeenVerified, a web-based tracking company.

That's nearly equal to the combined total of 2018 and 2019 when 36 such memorials were dismantled and the second highest this decade, since 55 were taken down in 2017. BeenVerified attributed that uptick to the aftermath of the Charleston church killings, five years ago this month.

More:5 years after Charleston was rocked by the Mother Emanuel church shooting, the pain lingers

In Florida, at least five statues celebrating the Confederacy and its soldiers have been removed in the past three weeks. That’s tied with Texas, and second to Virginia where 12 such tributes are no longer standing.

Holt had made two previous attempts to remove the Gadsden memorial, but came up short. A motion was approved in 2017 to relocate it to a more appropriate spot, but staff never came back with any recommendations.

More:States Where Confederate Monuments Are Falling—And Where They’re Not

Then Hurricane Michael battered the region in 2018 and commissioners' attention turned to the recovery and rebuilding effort. “But (Gee) showed there was support for this. His use of social media was very instrumental in getting it done,” Holt said.

A reminder of 'shameful terror'

Gee expressed some empathy for people who argue that Confederate tributes are a part of history and should remain.

He said he understands that the monuments were put up in the late 1800s to honor fallen family members, but he explained the debate is about the appropriate location to display them.

In his view, they belong in museums and at historic sites, not on public lands, and especially not at courthouses, where citizens seek justice from their government.

“You choose to go into a museum," Gee said. "You choose to go stand near that display, but when you have something like that at Courthouse Square, you cannot not see" what it really represents — a memorial to the enslavement of people who look like him.

“When we go to get a marriage license or pay a parking ticket, we don’t want to be reminded of that shameful terror (in) our history, when African-Americans were treated as less than human,” he added.

'Sacred to the memory of the Confederate Soldiers'

The statue was erected April 26, 1884, by the "Ladies of the Memorial Association of Gadsden County." It featured a phalanx atop a four-sided base. On one side of the base appears to be an officer in a dress uniform.

On another side it says, "Sacred to the memory of the Confederate Soldiers from Gadsden County who died for their country."

Gee said the statue did not reflect the people of Gadsden County or the country as a whole: "In essence, it celebrates people who today we would consider terrorists and traitors."

Floyd's death, and those of Ahmaud Arbey, gunned down while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician shot by a Louisville police officer in her home, has fueled debate about Confederate memorials and tributes and how institutions treat people of color and low income.

Gee said he now finds himself involved in more civil rights cases. But he told himself he had no right to speak out about anything or advocate for anyone as long as that statue stood in his hometown’s Courthouse Square.

And that's why a week ago Saturday, Gee made that 52-second cell-phone video of himself in front of the monument.

Dressed in a ball cap and T-shirt, he stood in the rain and called the statue a symbol of hatred that would no longer be celebrated.

“The inhumane treatment of my ancestors is no longer going to be celebrated," Gee declared.

Holt, the county commissioner, said county staff is looking for a more appropriate place to display it. “But somebody has to ask for it,” she added.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 62 Confederate statues remain in Florida but that's likely to change soon.

There are 10 still standing in Jacksonville — and Mayor Lenny Curry said they too are coming down.

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: How a big city lawyer took on a small town Florida Confederate monument — and won