It was sometime around four AM on Tuesday morning, June 9, when the monument to Confederate soldiers was finally dislodged from the pillar it had stood atop at the center of Hemming Park for 122 years. As we’ve seen with similar actions around the country, it was done at night to reduce the odds of retaliatory violence. This was the latest stunning installment in a new tradition, and a stunning rebuke to an old tradition, which held firm in the River City since Reconstruction. The sun rose just a couple hours later, shining light on a city that was suddenly new–to a certain extent at least.
The activists, black and white, who’d labored for decades to “tear ‘em down” awoke abruptly, often by calls and texts from friends and colleagues, congratulations on a job well done. They were set to gather at 10am for the latest in a series of protest marches that have taken on a life of their own in this city, and others like it from coast to coast. This one was led by Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette; he was joined by thousands of his fellow citizens, and also by mayor Lenny Curry and sheriff Mike Williams. This was something new, one of very few examples in which the Black Lives Matter movement received official sanction from the political establishment.
Where liberal mayors of Democratic cities have so far stood down, these conservative leaders in this deep-red city did actually lead on this occasion, and the narrative shifted bigly, in a flash.
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HAPPENING NOW at Hemming Park & City Hall: Mayor Curry along with the Sheriff, Leonard Fournette and a large crowd marched through downtown and held a news conference. The mayor announced today the city will be removing all confederate statues around the city. #904happyhour #igersjax #dtjax #duuuval #ilovejax #dtwd
But this moment of unprecedented citywide unity further exposed the vast divisions that still linger here—divisions bigger than just race, ones that touch on fundamental matters of social organization. First established in 1857, Hemming Park was known as St. James Park from 1869 to 1898, when the name was changed to honor Charles Hemming, a Civil War veteran who first installed the 62-foot sculpture. Its 1.54 acres have since persisted as both touchstone and lightning rod ever since, playing host to everyone from homeless people to presidents, often serving as a metaphor for the city itself through generations of civic development. It was one of the few major structures to survive the Great Fire of 1901, and was later the epicenter of the infamous coordinated attack against civil rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan on what would come to Axe Handle Sunday riots of 1960.
From that point onward, four generations of activists have fixated on the statue as a festering symbol of Jim Crow, but never has there been any real possibility of its removal. Former city council president Anna Lopez Brosche, who challenged Curry for mayor last year, made its removal a focus of her career, but it seemed that those hopes collapsed alongside her campaign. Only recently, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, has the community finally built a firm consensus, giving Mayor Curry the political cover needed to buck his conservative base and take it down.
WJXT’s Ashley Harding was first to break the story, which quickly spread across all of local media. The response illustrated the first rule of social media: “Never read the comments.” Curry took heavy flack from his rightward flank, which accused him of caving in to the protesters and making an almost Stalin-esque move to censor a key part of local history. Progressives, on the other hand, often seemed unable to give him any credit, or to savor their biggest political victory since the Human Rights Ordinance was passed in 2017.
Speculation on Curry’s motivations rarely seemed to center on his moral compass, but rather on political expediency, whether it was Shad Khan or his controversial efforts to court the Republican National Convention. He was accused of “performative allyship”, a cosmetic concession to a growing BLM movement, and critics focused less on what was done but on what has not been done. Not yet, anyway. Curry, who joined the crowd in a raucous “Black Lives Matter!” chant, captured on television, made it clear during the march that all of the city’s assorted Confederate monuments had been marked for destruction, citywide. He and the sheriff also announced plans to initiate broader changes in the way policing was done here, with details TBD.
As the big picture goes, nothing has really changed. The protests and protestations will go on, and the debate will only intensify from here. But, taken in capsule, what was once known as the Bold New City of the South actually lived up to the old slogan, and more progress was made across racial and ideological lines in five hours than had been made in the five decades before. There’s no way to know exactly what may come next, but the events of June 9 caught observers on all sides by surprise, and the table has now been set for even more dramatic change in one city, one Jacksonville.
Hull On Earth is a column by journalist and man-about-town Shelton Hull, which appears irregularly in Void Magazine and on Voidlive.com.