Victor Crist says he doesn't understand controversy over his attempt to recognize Southern Heritage month

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Victor Crist says he means no offense with his proclamation recognizing April as Southern Heritage month, and is suprised about the negative reaction in some quarters. He says he spoke with a local official with the NAACP to vet what would actually be written in the proclamation.

As CL reported on Thursday, at least one of Crist's colleagues on the Board of County Commissioners — Les Miller — does object to the proclamation, and won't be signing it. Now a second Commissioner, Kevin Beckner, says he won't sign the proclamation, either.

In a written statement, Beckner says that the document "fails to recognize the irreparable harm and suffering that slavery inflicted upon African Americans, or the four years of the Civil War in which more than 700,000 Americans died and much of the South’s infrastructure was destroyed. If the Board of County Commissioners and the people of Hillsborough County are recognizing April as Southern Heritage Month for the purpose of 'teaching, learning, and remembering the long, rich diverse history of the Southern United States,' as the proclamation suggests, then the whole truth of this history must be told.'"

But Crist says his proclamation doesn't single out members of the Confederacy, but simply mentions that all veterans of the Civil War should be recognized as true veterans.

"It doesn't really praise the South for the war. It doesn't draw attention to any of the ugliness of the time," Crist told CL on Friday morning. "It stays positive and focuses on the beauty that people have come to love about the Southern part of the country."

Crist is adamant in clarifying that he's not pandering to any particular constituencies as he prepares to run for re-election to his District 2 seat this fall. He does not face a Republican challenger at the moment. Eastern Hillsborough County Democratic activist Elizabeth Belcher has announced she'll challenge Crist this fall. (She has not responded to our request for comment.)

The veteran legislator, who served in Tallahassee representing Tampa in the House and Senate for 18 years before running for County Commissioner in 2010, says "frankly I'm a little shocked" that anyone would have an issue with the proclamation.

The head of the Hillsborough County NAACP, Dr. Carolyn Collins, says that it was David McCallister  a Civil War buff and frequent speaker on the subject of Southern heritage at County Commission meetings, who brought the proclamation to her organization's attention several months ago. When asked about Crist's comment that he vetted the language of the proclamation with an NAACP member, Collins said no one from her office had any authorization to do that.

However, she does say that the only objection her board has with the proclamation is that they would like it changed to observe a single day, rather than the entire month of April. She also said that there was one board member who did object to some of the historical facts included in the proclamation, but the NAACP was not going to advise any changes. Other than that, she says, the NAACP does not have objections to the proclamation.

But the last time a board member attempted to recognize Southern Heritage month with a proclamation, in 2007, it failed to get a majority of votes, and nobody has attempted to bring it back before the board. The following year divisions about the Civil war and slavery erupted again when a local citizen named Marion Lambert was able to hoist a 30' x 50' Confederate flag at the spot where I-4 and I-75 meet.

Commissioner Crist went on to say that "there's always going to be someone somewhere that is going to raise an old ugly issue," but compares what he's doing in honoring the beauty of the South with anniversaries celebrating World War II but failing to mention Japanese internment camps, or Thanksgiving without mentioning the mass slaughter of American Indians. "That wasn't my purpose," he says. 

(UPDATE: David McCallister, commander with  Judah P. Benjamin Camp No. 2210. Sons of Confederate Veterans, contacted CL late in the day on Friday. He was particularly displeased with Commissioner Beckner's criticism of the proclamation, who helped create the Hillsborough County Diversity Council. "Heaven knows we're a small minority of the overall population - the native Southerner, the Florida cracker, if you will. But yet to try to disassociate the county from even these few people, politically disenfranchised as we may be, is not a good thing."

He went on to say that those who are against the Confederate flag at I-4 and I-75 are against the Constitution and the First Amendment. And says those who are against this proclamation are against veterans. "We just want to be recognized just like everybody else. And for Kevin Beckner especially to be so critical, to be hypocritical really in his treatment of us is strange. If Mr. Beckner would like to have respect for the Rainbow flag, there should be equal respect for the Confederate soldiers flag."

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