By Julie Delegal
“Never apologize for being right.” The words alone are provocative, but when they appear on a T-shirt with a giant Confederate flag, they become both inflammatory and puzzling.
Never apologize for what? Secession? Slavery? How about white supremacy?
The fight to rename Jacksonville’s Nathan Bedford Forrest High School raises the question. Should a public school in 2013 be named for the original grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? At least 75,000 people who signed a petition urging that the name be changed are generating national attention.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the stars-and-bars on the east side of the river in my city. They’re usually spotted stretched out on backs of pickup trucks, and not — as I eyed them recently — displayed in a local eatery, on the backs of two young men in their 20s. I wondered what the black cashier thought of the T-shirted young pair when she served them.
One clever politician here, Glorious Johnson, once tried to defuse the power of the symbol on the cover of Folio Weekly. She may be the only black woman in history to have worn the Confederate flag on her shirt.
For many whites and blacks in Jacksonville, reminders of the Confederacy are offensive. Indeed, according to civil rights historian and author, Rodney L. Hurst, the naming of Forrest High School in 1959 was intended to be an insult.
At that time, Jacksonville’s School Board was thumbing its nose at the nation in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that banned school segregation. And while current Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is on record supporting the idea of a name change, news of the petition gaining traction was answered by vague references to “policy.” Translation: No one wants to touch this time-consuming hot potato.
In 2007, the Duval County School board voted down a new name for Forrest in a 5-2 decision, with the board’s only two black members voting in favor of the change.
Enter first-term Duval County School Board Member Jason Fischer. He used his GOP credentials to get elected in what’s supposed to be a nonpartisan race in Duval.
He says policy allows board members to initiate talks about school name changes, and he plans to do just that at his next town hall meeting. He says he won’t defend racists or racism in any form.
The editors of the Florida Times Union imply that we should leave the disgraceful name intact until “it’s time” to change it, arguing that we should focus, instead, on students and families.
Fischer seems to know that changing the name of “KKK High School,” and serving students and families, aren’t mutually exclusive goals. The renaming issue will continue to re-emerge, though, until the inevitable task is done.
In a national culture where some people use conservatism as a proxy for an anti-socialist-Muslim-Kenyan brand of racism, Fischer’s leadership is refreshing. It’s going to take leadership from inside the GOP to oust the extremists, the obstructionists, and the flat-out crazies who came to power in the 2010 elections.
Some issues, after all, are more important than party loyalty. Jason Fischer is only a few years older than the T-shirted men I saw in the restaurant. Can he help lead Jacksonville out of this shameful part of its history?
Julie Delegal, a lifelong Floridian, is a contributing writer for Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly and a ContextFlorida columnist.