JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the predawn darkness Tuesday, Mayor Lenny Curry ordered city workers to remove the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier in winter uniform that had hovered above Hemming Park in downtown Jacksonville for more than a century.
Then, hours later, Curry, pledged to a crowd of peaceful protesters that he would order the removal of all remaining public Confederate monuments throughout the city.
The unannounced move was a remarkable pivot for the city’s Republican mayor who had previously avoided taking a position on the controversy. Just as remarkable is what seems to have played a role in changing Curry’s mind: The voices of NFL players from the Jacksonville Jaguars who have joined protesters in recent days to demand police reform and renewed efforts to tackle inequality in Florida's most populous city.
“I’m happy to see black and whites out here together doing this, and it’s a wonderful thing,” said Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, who led Tuesday's peaceful protest, joined by Sheriff Mike Williams. “The biggest thing is that I didn’t grow up being racist or my parents teaching me racism. We’ve got to stop that. ... That’s bad, man. It’s hard being black out here right now. It’s tough. I want to be that voice for people like George Floyd, you know Alton Sterling, guys like that.”
'Symbols of white supremacy': Is this the end for other Confederate memorials?
The surprise dismantling of the Confederate monument in Hemming Park marked the beginning of an eventful — and historic — day in Jacksonville.
In the afternoon, State Attorney Melissa Nelson announced her office was working on updating its policy for releasing body camera footage in officer-involved shootings — a key demand of protesters in recent days. In the evening, the city council approved a law intended to protect the city’s LGBTQ residents from discrimination.
Protesters welcomed removal of the monuments but some also voiced displeasure that Curry, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has been actively campaigning to hold the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville. They also vowed to continue their demonstrations until their demands for the faster release of police body camera footage and other reform measures were taken up.
Last week, Jaguars players and staff marched to Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office headquarters, where wide receiver Chris Conley made an impassioned speech that noted the presence of the Confederate monument in Hemming Park, just feet away from City Hall.
“The confederate monument is gone. And the others in this city will be removed as well,” Curry said Tuesday morning. “We hear your voices. We have heard your voices.”
After a man hit and killed a woman with a car during the 2017 white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, then-City Council President Anna Lopez Brosche called for confederate monuments to be removed from public property.
At the time, however, Curry said he wouldn’t use the bully pulpit of his office to weigh in on the issue, and the idea to remove the monuments failed to gain traction.
Brosche, who eventually ran unsuccessfully against Curry, later proposed installing a memorial next to the monument to honor lynching victims, although the city council in 2018 formally rejected the idea.
“I am grateful for this day in Jacksonville,” Brosche said in a statement. “It is my hope we may begin the process of healing and reconciliation that respects every single individual and sets a path for the realization of racial equity, including the promises made during consolidation.”
The removal of monument from Hemming Park was 'a long time coming'
Jacksonville did not play a prominent role in the Civil War, and it was occupied by Union soldiers on four separate occasions. But, like many southern cities, Jacksonville adopted public memorials to the failed insurrection in the decades after the war.
The 62-foot Vermont granite monument was installed in Hemming Park in 1898 after the park’s namesake, Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming, donated the statue. Confederate Park sits on the edge of the Springfield neighborhood and also has a highly visible memorial to “Women of the Southland.”
Wells Todd, an activist with Take ’Em Down Jax, which has been calling for the removal of Confederate monuments for years, credited a movement of people calling for change.
“It was a long time coming,” he said. “What those statues stand for and stood for is white supremacy.”
N.V. Pharaoh, a 36-year-old Jacksonville native, said he was proud to be a part of history. He said he was the victim of brutality by corrections officers when he was incarcerated and vowed to fight for justice upon his release 4 1/2 years ago.
He questioned why the mayor and sheriff waited until now to march.
“Why weren’t they part of a movement in the city? I think he [Curry] wants to listen. He’s not going to have a choice but to listen because the people aren’t going to accept injustice.”
NFL's Jaguars take leading role in bringing change to Jacksonville
The Jaguars became the first professional sports franchise to have an organized protest last week, and team owner Shad Khan wrote an op-ed that decried racism and its impact on people, communities and dreams.
“Kudos for Leonard for putting us together and knowing the resources that he has and for him to get with the mayor so people can shout their questions and shout their disgruntled things,” Jaguars defensive tackle Abry Jones said.
“We’re trying to show them that we can get behind the city and do our part,” Jones added. “We’re just trying to stay in front and say that we agree with the same people that live in the city and the problem that’s going on and talked about Chris’ [Conley] great speech [during last week’s protest march] talking about voter registration and getting more people to vote.”
This article originally appeared on USATNetwork: Jacksonville, Florida, takes down Confederate monument after 122 years