Scuffle mars protest seeking removal of Civil War memorial from Walton County Courthouse grounds
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — A Sunday protest against the Confederate memorial on the Walton County Courthouse grounds was marred by a scuffle during which one of the protesters apparently either pushed or otherwise knocked an elderly female counter-demonstrator supporting the memorial’s place at the courthouse onto a concrete walkway near the memorial.
The incident occurred within minutes of the arrival of an estimated 50 protesters at the courthouse following a march of about a mile from Harbeson Field, dubbed the March for Social Justice.
The march and speeches at the courthouse were a prelude to a planned presence at Tuesday’s meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to push for removal of the memorial to what protesters believe would be a more suitable location, such as a cemetery or museum.
The woman, who identified herself as Beth Gates, said the male protester ran toward the stone monument to the county’s Civil War dead and its Confederate flag shouting “I’ll take it down! I’ll take it down!”
As order was restored, the counter-demonstrators stayed around the edges of the memorial, as protesters listened to speeches from the courthouse steps on the opposite side of a hedge lining a courthouse lawn walkway.
Gates said she stepped toward the man and was pushed to the walkway by him, and added that she would be pressing charges in the incident.
However, that may hinge on a review of cellphone videos of the incident made available to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office deputies on the scene, according to Sheriff’s Office Lt. Dustin Cosson. As of Sunday afternoon, according to Cosson, it remained unclear exactly who had pushed Gates.
The counter-demonstrators, roughly equal in number to the protesters, arrayed themselves around the Confederate memorial and were, at times, somewhat belligerent. At one point, as protesters chanted “Take it down!” some counter-demonstrators responded with a threatening response of “Come and get it!”
At another point, when Sabu Williams, one of the march organizers, had his turn at the microphone and said, “The Confederacy is dead!” one of the counter-demonstrators responded with a yell of “Well, then, what are you here for?”
Counter-demonstrators approached by the Daily News were, for the most part, reluctant to give their names. One man in a group of three men standing apart from the memorial suggested that removing the memorial from the courthouse grounds was just a first step for protesters.
“What’s next?” he asked. “Our books? Our religion?”
Another man in the group insisted that the county’s Confederate dead, whose names are inscribed on the monument, were American soldiers. “Every soldier up there was an American soldier,” he said.
Pressed on the point, though, the man partially relented, saying “Well, to me they are.”
As the line of speakers for Sunday’s protest, including a number of area ministers, wound down, Williams took the campaign to have the Confederate monument and flag removed from the courthouse lawn to a new level.
Williams urged a boycott of Walton County businesses as a means of having the business community pressure Walton County commissioners to remove the memorial from the courthouse grounds.
“If they don’t think it’s time to take that flag down … we’re going to shop somewhere else,” Williams said, the crowd responding with agreement.
The crowd of marchers stepped off from Harbeson Field shortly after 4 p.m., occasionally chanting “Move that flag! Move it now!” as they made their way toward the courthouse.
En route, they waved American flags — “the only flag that should fly at the courthouse,” said Kay Brief, a march organizer affiliated with Community of Caring, a local group that works on social justice issues.
Sunday’s march marked the second time in two months that opponents of the Confederate memorial staged a march to the courthouse.
A June 19 march to the courthouse from nearby Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church marked the 155th anniversary of “Juneteenth” — June 19, 1865 — which marked the official end of slavery in the United States.
That protest included chants of “Take it back!,” a reference in support of the relocation of the memorial and its flag.
In an announcement of Sunday’s march, organizers said the march and the planned Tuesday appearance at the commission meeting are designed to “urge the county to move these symbols of slavery to a museum or cemetery, where they can be placed in historical context and residents’ ancestors can be remembered.”
That effort to have the memorial removed from the courthouse grounds will come three weeks after the commission, in a 3-2 June 23 vote, opted to keep the Confederate flag as part of the memorial.
That vote, in which Commissioners Melanie Nipper, Danny Glidewell and Trey Nick voted to keep the flag, and Commissioner Tony Anderson and Commission Chairman Bill Chapman voted to remove it, did not address the monument itself, a stone obelisk first erected at an area church in 1871.
The flag at the memorial is not the Confederate battle flag featuring diagonal blue stripes adorned with stars on a red background, a flag appropriated by many hate groups. It is instead the first flag of the Confederate States of America, featuring two red stripes, a white stripe, and a blue field in one corner with a circle of seven stars representing the original Confederate states.
The Confederate battle flag had flown at the monument since it was moved to the courthouse in 1964, at the height of the nationwide civil rights movement, but commissioners voted in 2015 to remove that flag and replace it with the first flag of the Confederate states.
In a non-binding 2018 referendum, participating Walton County voters opted by a 65 percent majority to keep the flag at the memorial.
The obelisk at the memorial was commissioned just three years after the Civil War. The Walton County Female Memorial Association raised the $250 needed for the monument, which was initially located at Valley Church before being moved to the then-county seat of Eucheeanna an eventually to the Walton County Courthouse. The obelisk is the first Confederate monument to have been erected in Florida.