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Fort Myers City Council votes to remove pedestal that held Robert E. Lee bust

Bill Smith
Fort Myers News-Press
The bust of Robert E. Lee returned briefly Sunday to the stone pillar it has been absent from in downtown Fort Myers for half a year as a small band of people gathered to celebrate the Confederate leader's birthday. A small wreath was also laid at the statue's base.

A bronze bust of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that occupied a position of honor in downtown Fort Myers for decades has taken its place on the scrap heap of history, unlikely to ever appear again on city-owned space in downtown Fort Myers.

The Fort Myers City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to remove the Monroe Street pedestal on which the bust had spent more than a half-century. The removal may mean the controversial bust never again commands an official presence in Fort Myers.

The turning point leading to keeping the bust off city streets was an hour-long celebration of the Confederate Army hero on the day before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The local contingent of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has possession of the bust, sponsored the event Sunday.

"The SCV, Footman camp, holds this birthday remembrance every year on January 19th and have been doing so for more than twenty years," Ross R. Barnett, commander of the Maj. William M. Footman Camp of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans, said in an email to The News-Press. "This year we held the ceremony on the Sunday before as not to attract the ire of city council."

Barnett said news stories saying the celebration included honoring Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson or others were incorrect.

Previous coverage:Fort Myers council votes to send Robert E. Lee bust to museum

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"There was no mention of Nathan Bedford Forrest or Gen. Stonewall Jackson in our presentation," Barnett said in the email. "We were there solely to honor the good name of Robert E. Lee of which our county derived its name. Like it or not...this is Lee county. Our ceremony opened with a prayer then a state law was read out loud proclaiming R.E.L’s birthday, January 19th, to be a state holiday."

For some in the community, the celebration of a general of a pro-slavery confederacy during a national celebration of a civil rights was seen as a final indignity for Black Americans after a year in which civil rights became a life and death issue.

City Council member Teresa Watkins Brown, one of three Black council members, called it disrespectful and asked colleagues to join her in voting to remove the pedestal on which the bust rested for years.

"With all of the unity issues and things that are going on around our nation, I kind of think it was a little bit disrespectful what they did this weekend, knowing that Martin Luther King Day was being celebrated," Watkins Brown said. 

"Knowing the things that hurt me, maybe it doesn't hurt you, but it hurts others," she said. "We have got to be respectful for that if we want to heal our country, if we want to heal our nation."

More:Robert E. Lee bust back in Fort Myers briefly to observe Confederate general's birthday

Last year, the city council voted to forbid returning the bust to its resting spot on a traffic island on Monroe street in downtown Fort Myers.

The statue had been removed as the Black Lives Matter movement gained strength in the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota after a police officer knelt on Floyd's neck.

The issue was raised at the city council meeting during a public comment period Tuesday.

Deborah Hopkins of Fort Myers addressed the council by phone and told The News-Press after the vote that a celebration of leaders of the Confederate Army as the nation prepared for the annual celebration of an iconic civil rights leader was a turning point

"All of this week we are celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, a civil rights leader who is a major historical figure and a mentor," Hopkins said. "It was very upsetting to me, it was confounded by the insurrection at the Capitol, it was a punch in the gut, but these people were able to get away with this."

No city council member and no member of the public spoke against taking away the plinth used to display the Lee bust. 

Watkins said the demonstration was relatively unknown to the public over the holiday weekend, but the impact was clear enough.

"The thing is," Watson said, "you don't want to incite hate. Anything could have happened on both sides with people coming down and being upset about it."

The vote to remove the pedestal was unanimous.  Mayor Kevin Anderson, who had opposed refusing to allow the bust to be returned last year voted in favor of removing the pedestal.

The bust of Robert E. Lee returned briefly Sunday to the stone pillar it has been absent from in downtown Fort Myers for half a year as a small band of people gathered to celebrate the Confederate leader's birthday. A small wreath was also laid to the statue's base.

The city has not pursued taking possession of the bust, but council members previously suggested putting it in a museum. 

The bust was dedicated in 1966 after being presented to Lee County by the now-defunct Laetitia Ashmore Nutt Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 

In recent years,  Lee County has declaimed ownership of the Lee bust, leaving it the presumptive property of the city of Fort Myers on whose property it remained for 54 years.

When voting to remove the Lee bust from its position of prominence last year, some council members said it might find a home in a museum, but so far there is no taker.

Hopkins noted that some activists want to turn their attention to the Old County Courthouse, where a cartoonish portrait of Lee glowers down on citizens who rise to address their government at county commission meetings.

Watkins Brown said the country needs healing that can only come from a measure of respect not seen when the Sons of Confederate Veterans was celebrating confederate generals.

"For them to put the statute back up, for them to take it upon themselves to say, 'They don't matter, we are going to have this ceremony and do what we want to do,' was an insult to our leadership," she said. "If we want to heal our country, if we want to heal our nation, you don't want to incite hate."