Nate Monroe: On DeSantis, Confederates, cruelty and kindness in Jacksonville

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

COMMENTARY | Tuesday in Jacksonville began with cruelty and ended with a small act of kindness. It began with degradation and ended with progress. It began with a Southern governor scapegoating marginalized kids to further his political ambition; it ended with a decision by school officials to choose redemption over ignorance for the scapegoating of Black Americans by past generations of Southern politicians. 

One does not fully atone for the other, but the decision late Tuesday to right a past wrong was hard-won and bigger than the whims of one selfish man: It took an entire community to get behind the effort to wipe away the names of Confederate generals on six Jacksonville public schools. Even then, the decision by the Duval County School Board was not unanimous: The measures, after hours of contentious public comment and weeks of protests, passed 5-2.

Dig a little deeper:Duval School Board votes to rename 6 Confederate-tied schools including Lee

More:DeSantis signs controversial transgender girls sports ban on first day of Pride in Jacksonville

More Nate Monroe:Enough already! Rename Jacksonville's Confederate schools

It was a simple act of kindness and of progress and an unusually feel-good way to end an hours-long school board meeting. It was also a moment Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried his hardest to overshadow earlier in the day. His actions, like those of his Southern political forefathers, will one day need redemption as well.

A shameful start

On the first day of June, widely recognized as Pride month, DeSantis stopped hours earlier at Trinity Christian Academy to sign a sweeping education bill that included a highly divisive measure banning transgender women athletes from competing in high school girls' and college womens' sports teams.

DeSantis' presence at Trinity was loaded with bad faith: It's telling the governor couldn't find a public school that would have him for signing a bill almost no one in public education asked for or believed is necessary. So contrived is this latest bit of vile theater that DeSantis had to truck in a Connecticut track athlete to Jacksonville to speak on behalf of the bill. Apparently, this urgent crisis has yet to reach Florida's shores.

Mental health is an example of an issue demanding rapid, high-profile state action concerning transgender children; instead, DeSantis opted to worsen the problem by further marginalizing them, by making transgender children sound like cheaters or worse, because that's what he believes his political base wants to see. Not for the first time, DeSantis has displayed a shockingly cavalier attitude about human life in furthering his political fortunes.

So, with no one in public education willing to host him, DeSantis ended up instead at Trinity, a church with a deeply troubled and well-known history around the issue of child sexual abuse. And that controversy aside, private schools in Florida, like Trinity, are already permitted to discriminate against gay and transgender students while still receiving taxpayer money, and they are under no obligation to provide sports programs. DeSantis has framed the entire issue around the importance of preserving the integrity of school sports programs, which is an odd hill to die on as he runs a state government that has for decades steered public money toward charter and private schools that, unlike public schools, don't have to offer youth athletics at all.

So the reason DeSantis was there — the cruel measure he hoped to promote — has nothing to do with private schools, which are free to engage in state-sponsored discrimination and to run their schools on the cheap.

That setting harkened back to a dog-whistle-heavy event DeSantis held in Polk County in April to sign a so-called "anti-mob" bill into law that granted police broad new powers to apply subjective standards to arrest protesters in the name of “law and order” — powers that will almost certainly be unleashed disproportionately against minorities. Polk County was a notoriously terrifying place for Black Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries and had more lynchings than almost any other Southern county from the post-Reconstruction era through Jim Crow.

Polk County was, like Trinity, a perfectly imperfect place to sign such a bill — so precisely gross it seems deliberate.

A positive end

The governor's dark presence Tuesday didn't stamp out all the light to come.

It was, in hindsight, a mistake for schools officials to embark on a process that took nearly a year to simply scrub the names of a random smattering of Confederate generals from Jacksonville's public schools. This, in truth, should have taken a single meeting. But in the end, Duval Schools superintendent Diana Greene and the School Board made the right choice Tuesday night.

The prolonged debate obscured the controversy's simplicity: Jacksonville was nothing more than a Union-occupied minor theater in the Civil War and has virtually no meaningful connections to Confederate generals. The school names were adopted during two separate waves of historical revisionism and hatred in the 20th century. It had nothing to do with history.

There was never a good reason to have a Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, much less to retain the name two decades into the following century. Their continued presence became an undeniable, impossible-to-ignore insult to Black students and their families.

"I'm voting to change the names because it's the right thing to do," board member Warren Jones, who initiated the name changes, offered in an appropriately simple summation. No elected official has been on the right side more often in Jacksonville's recent history than Jones, who, during his previous stint on the City Council, was the first champion for expanding the city's discrimination protections to LGBTQ residents.

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The decision was left to the board, but a community vote run by the Duval County Supervisor of Elections endorsed the name changes. The business community also put its weight behind the effort.

The fears of aging alumni won't pan out. Their yearbooks will not suddenly vanish. Their memories will remain intact. It will be fine.

A few years ago, the board removed Nathan Bedford Forrest's name from what is today Westside High School. When it was named for Forrest, the superintendent noted Tuesday, the school's graduation rate was 62 percent.

Today, it's 90 percent.

Nate Monroe's City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.