"Let’s say I have a brick. I pick up that brick and hit you, time and time again. Every time we are near one another, I pull out that brick and hit you again.
“Then, I realize that hitting you with a brick is wrong. I apologize. I understand that I have been hateful. But I carry the brick. And every time I come near you now, I still have that brick in my hands. I don’t hit you with it, but I carry it where I know you’ll see it.”
That analogy, Watkins said, explains why so many blacks oppose a controversial plan to bring an imposing four-ton statue of a Confederate general to the Lake County Historical Society Museum in Tavares.
“What if every time I came around you, I brought that brick with me? What would you think? Every time — I got that brick in my hand?
“To African-Americans, that brick is these Confederate statues. Those statues were erected to send a message: ‘You’re less than human. You’re less than us.’ How can we get past it? How can we know it’s over if you keep sticking a brick in our face?”
Bingo. Watkins’ analogy is perfectly simple to understand, even for oblivious white people such as state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, and state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who represents much of Lake County. Both are big supporters of Confederate statues who seem unable to consider thoughtfully a position other than their own.
Perhaps they don’t intend to make minorities uncomfortable or to make the not-so-subtle threat that white people are still in charge and things will stay that way. But what is an African-American person to think?
The notion that white people might not always have freedom is absurd. Of course we will. That’s the bedrock on which America was created more than 240 years ago.
But black people who were enslaved at the time don’t have the luxury of thinking it can’t happen. Being once held in slavery is a collective memory passed down through the three or four generations since the Civil War decided the question. Yes, America has transformed for the better. Neither blacks nor any other minority would ever be enslaved again unless U.S. culture changed in a dramatically bad way.
So, why are we carrying the brick?
That’s the question Watkins wants to address during a march against bringing the statue to the county museum. The walk, which Watkins insisted will be peaceful, is set for 11 a.m. Aug. 10 beginning at the St. Johns I.F.M. Church at 120 Bloxom Ave. in Tavares and is to end on the lawn of the historic courthouse, where a rally with speakers is planned.
Watkins said he expects marchers of all colors.
“It’s not a black and white issue — it’s about right and wrong,” he said. “It’s beyond me to even think about it when all over America, people are removing statutes. Why bring one here?
“Some of that old sentiment — it’s still here.”
Indeed, it is. Consider that the five members of the Lake County Commission have done nothing — have not even stated that honoring a person who fought for slavery is wrong. Allowing it to be in a public building is doubly wrong. That’s the biggest sign that something is still awry in the community. The lack of leadership is disturbing.
Lake County was slower than most areas to embrace civil rights, and part of the reason was that the notorious Sheriff Willis McCall was in office from 1944 to 1972, and he fought hard to keep the races separated and blacks in a subservient position.
McCall once threw a family of Native American children out of the public schools, saying they were black and shouldn’t be going to school with white kids.
McCall framed the Groveland Four, young men accused of raping a teenage wife in the late 1940s, and ended up shooting two of the men, killing one, on a rural road near Umatilla as he drove them back to Lake when their convictions were overturned. A posse earlier had killed the third suspect who ran from deputies, and the fourth, a 16-year-old boy, had taken a plea bargain.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, in his first weeks in office, saw to it that the four men were pardoned by the Florida Cabinet. It was a long time coming, even after a nonfiction book by historian and author Gilbert King was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for exposing the injustice.
McCall’s office was in the historic courthouse, site of the planned display of the bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. In fact, three of the Groveland Four were handcuffed to pipes in the basement of the building and beaten with hoses to encourage confessions.
The irony of the placement of the statue in the same building is bitter, but somehow museum curator Bob Grenier, who lacks empathy, doesn’t get it. Grenier wasn’t even in line when the irony gene was passed out.
He is the engine behind this plan, and he continues to push, though his actions already are defining the kind of racist legacy he will leave.
Watkins — and plenty of white people — understand the innate wrong in the plan.
“In the same building where McCall did a lot of dirty, now we’re going bring a Confederate statue and put it in that building,” Watkins marveled.
The pastor, 59, said he grew up in Lake, where he had a “normal” childhood.
“Whites and blacks, we got along, but there was always this understanding of what happened" with McCall and race relations in Lake County, he said. That’s why he is surprised to be helping lead the anti-statue march.
“This dumbfounded me. I thought we had moved past that,” he said.