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From Confederate monuments, Jacksonville lawsuit morphs to also challenge 5 county names

A lawsuit in Jacksonville over using tax money to maintain tributes to the Confederacy has expanded to challenge the names of five Florida counties.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The video above is from a previous report.

The Florida Times-Union originally published this story.  

A lawsuit in Jacksonville over using tax money to maintain tributes to the Confederacy has expanded to challenge the names of five Florida counties whose namesakes were Confederates.

“I’m swinging for the fences,” civil rights activist Earl Johnson Jr. told a reporter after he filed an amended complaint this week that also claims additional grounds to hold that spending taxes to honor Confederates violates federal law.

“The budgetary enactments challenged herein burden the liberty of Plaintiff, a Black American, as they abridge central precepts of equality based upon race and color,” argued the new filing from Johnson, a disbarred lawyer representing himself.

It asked a federal judge for a “declaratory judgment” confirming Johnson’s charge that the law has been broken.

That wouldn't immediately change anything. But by asking for "such other and further relief as this court deems necessary," the suit set the stage for efforts to rename Baker, Bradford, Hendry, Lee and Pasco counties, all named for men who served the pro-slavery government that lost the Civil War.

The new complaint enlarged an earlier list of grievances by citing 46 examples of tributes ranging from Confederate monuments outside courthouses in Putnam and Hernando counties to a Confederate flag outside a Marion County government building; Alachua County’s Sidney Lanier Center, a school named for the poet who was a Confederate army private; and naming of the ancient “Confederate Oak” in a Volusia County park.

Johnson sued Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, contending that both the city and state violated parts of the U.S. Constitution by spending to maintain a series of commemorations of Confederates that "amounts to an intentional governmental endorsement of white supremacy.”

The suit quoted a March 1861 speech by Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, who told an audience in Savannah, Ga. that the Confederacy was “founded upon ... the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

City and state lawyers have argued that Johnson, who started a monument-removal website called TakeItDownNow.org, shouldn’t have legal standing to sue either Curry or DeSantis. Those lawyers asked last year to have the case dismissed.

Attorneys for the city and state asked a judge Thursday to allow them until Oct. 10 to answer Johnson's new complaint.

The new filing argued that besides violating the Constitution’s 13th and 14th Amendments, using tax dollars to maintain Confederate tributes on public land violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s guarantee of “full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations.

Entire counties and school districts, as well as parks, streets and government buildings, qualify as places of public accommodation, Johnson said, so actions affecting equal enjoyment of those places are problematic.

“Plaintiff is deeply repulsed, disheartened and intimidated by the governmental celebrations of white supremacy against him as a Black American,” said Johnson’s new complaint, which lists memorials, street and school names and other Confederate remembrances from 18 counties in the 35-county federal court district where the lawsuit was filed.

Except for Jacksonville, however, no one from the county governments were listed as defendants, effectively making the lawsuit for areas outside Duval County about state money contributing to upkeep of the sites.

Curry’s city budget proposal for 2023, which the council will vote on next week, included $500,000 for removing Confederate monuments in parks, an apparent reference to the “Tribute to the Women of the Southern Confederacy” at Springfield Park that he’d earlier requested $1.3 million to move.

The county names that Johnson invoked were adopted by Florida’s Legislature, mostly in the 19th century.

Lee County was named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to a 1905 book on place names produced by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Baker County was named for James McNair Baker, a state judge and politician who was still handling cases when the Legislature attached his name to the county in 1861, about two months before the Civil War began. The following year, he became one of Florida’s two senators in the Congress of the Confederate States of America.

Once called New River County, Bradford County was renamed to honor Capt. Richard Bradford, Florida’s first Confederate officer killed in the war.

Francis Hendry and Samuel Pasco were both politicians who fought in Confederate units during the war.

Fourteen months after the lawsuit was first filed, it’s possible the case could end soon.

This month, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard concluded that an earlier version of the complaint was “due to be stricken” because of problems with the way it was drafted.

Howard noted that U.S. Magistrate Patricia Barksdale found the first lawsuit was “a shotgun pleading,” a filing with too many vague assertions that build on each other but don’t say clearly which defendant is accused of which wrongdoing.

After tossing a first revision of the lawsuit, Howard told Johnson the whole case would be dismissed if the new filing didn’t fix the problem.

Separate from that, Johnson said he’s planning to file a motion asking Howard to expedite the case.

The Florida Times-Union originally published this story.  

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