A proper place for Johnny Reb

Friday, August 22, 2008

It probably was not a big secret. Still, it seems a little known public fact that "Johnny Reb," the musket-wielding Confederate soldier atop the statue in front of the Marion County Courthouse for the last 100 years, would be forever relieved of his guard post.

That Johnny had to relocate during construction of the new courthouse annex was a given. But that appeared temporary. After all, in the run-up to the ground-breaking two years ago at least two county commissioners told Star-Banner columnist Joe Byrnes that they would not stand for the 20-foot-tall monument to be anywhere else other than back at his post once the $38 million project was complete.

We now know that will not happen, unless commissioners decide otherwise. On Tuesday County Administrator Pat Howard told the board that Johnny’s new location, in a nook on the south side of the facility near the parking garage, was permanent.

Howard’s announcement simply reiterated an answer he supplied eight months ago when Ocala resident Harry Hurst, an amateur historian whose family’s presence in Florida pre-dates statehood, wrote the board expressing concern about the statue’s whereabouts and its reinstallation.

Thus, it seems county staff, contractors and a set of blueprints quietly accomplished what the most virulent, uncompromising anti-Confederacy activist could not: banish Johnny Reb – and what he symbolizes to some people – from the courthouse entrance.

Yet Tommy Needham, a former Marion County commissioner and chief architect of the Ocala/Marion County Veterans Memorial Park, has a plan to rescue Johnny.

Needham on Tuesday lobbied the board to position Johnny prominently in the veterans park, and if possible, erect a Union counterpart for him.

Tucking Johnny away near the courthouse garage, Needham said, was "inappropriate," adding during his passionate speech that our community, especially our increasingly historically illiterate schoolchildren, lose something valuable if Johnny stays put.

"It is history. It is not racism. They were veterans of Florida. Mr. Lincoln pardoned them and gave them a chance to become U.S. citizens again," the 87-year-old Needham noted.

"I believe that we’re losing our history . … If you move the statue to the park, you will be fulfilling a place in history that is not racism. It is made to protect history. You cannot please everyone, but you cannot change history, either. … The memorial is for all Americans, not just North and South. You should protect it."

Commissioners should heed his advice.

Needham is correct in saying we cannot alter the actions of our ancestors. History sometimes can be ugly and regrettable. We demur only on his point about racism.

The heritage-versus-hate argument, though quiet in recent years, has raged in places all across the South for the better part of two decades. And while we understand many will disagree because of a sincere belief that Confederate symbols recall valor, honor and defense of federal encroachment on the Constitution, Johnny Reb’s presence in the minds of some minority residents is an offensive reminder of the most sorrowful part of America’s past.

That said, we also recognize that our nation has tried hard over the last 140 years, often at the expense of some of its own founding principles, to atone for that past. And as offensive as the status quo might be, allowing the pendulum to swing too far the other way would erase vital understanding not only our historical roots but, especially in viewing the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, how much we have achieved.

If the idea is for Johnny Reb to honor the heroism and sacrifices of Confederate soldiers and their role in America’s military history, as groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans advocate, it’s hard to imagine how that is accomplished with the statue stuck in as obscure a spot as it now rests. But at this juncture that appears to be Johnny’s fate, consigned to remain out of sight, and out of mind.

So, the best outcome would be, as Needham urged and as we argued in this space years ago, that Johnny Reb take up residence in the Veterans Memorial Park – a popular and high-profile site that our community has specifically carved out to pay homage to all who took up arms in America’s defense. To do otherwise would be a disservice to history, and likely ignite a needless and divisive controversy.

The best outcome would be that Johnny Reb take up residence in the Veterans Memorial Park – a popular and high-profile site that our community has specifically carved out to pay homage to all who took up arms in America’s defense.

Copyright © 2008 Ocala.com

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