TAVARES — About 400 people took to the streets of downtown Tavares Saturday for the “Unite for What’s Right March” to protest the statue of a Confederate general coming to Lake County.
Braving the heat, local and state politicians, community and religious leaders as well as everyday Lake County residents marched from St. John Independent Free Methodist Church three blocks to the Lake County Historical Museum, where a statue of Edmund Kirby Smith is slated to come next year.
State lawmakers decided to replace the Smith statue in Washington with a statue of civil rights leader and Bethune-Cookman University founder Mary McLeod Bethune. Smith has little connection to Lake County, and area mayors opposed relocating the statue to the Central Florida community.
[READ MORE: Lake County commissioners back Confederate statue]
[READ MORE: Bethune statue sculpted in Italy as Daytona group nears money goal]
While there was a law enforcement presence at the march, it remained peaceful. There were no counterprotesters.
Protesters chanted, “We don’t want it, take it back,” “No hate in Lake” and “Do what’s right.” Many carried around fans made for the “Unite for What’s Right March.” About 300 were made, but organizers ran out before the march started.
One protester carried a sign that read: “Help heal not hurt, ban statue.” A few carried signs that said “KKK Kirby Kan’t Come.”
Among them was Groveland resident Felicia Stewart. She said she and her husband were given the signs. And while she wasn’t thrilled about the grammatical error, she thought the sign itself sent a message she could get behind.
“I came for unity,” Stewart said. “This is unfair. I don’t think we had a voice.”
The state awarded the statue to Lake County Historical Museum last summer, and many found out it was coming through media reports.
Since then, critics have taken aim at the process. Pastor Mike Watkins, who helped organize the protest, has contrasted it to the zoning change process, where those affected have their say at public meetings before a decision is made.
Why wasn’t the statue process similar? he asks.
Last week, the Lake County Commission voted 3-2 to support the statue coming to the museum. The Tuesday meeting was well attended and the agenda issue took three hours. Of the 39 speakers, 35 spoke against the statue.
Commission Chairwoman Leslie Campione, as well as commissioners Josh Blake and Tim Sullivan, voted to support it, siding with proponents who say the statue will serve as a way to teach museum-goers about history, even though it can be uncomfortable. Proponents have accused statue opponents of attempting to erase history. Commissioners Wendy Breeden and Sean Parks voted against supporting it.
Statue opponents left the meeting defeated but vowed to keep fighting.
Saturday’s crowd was diverse — people of different races, ages and faiths attended. Young people, old people, families with small children.
Some wore crosses, and some women wore hijabs.
Cassandra Hicks, of Tavares, said she was inspired by the crowd’s diversity and said that it helps bridge the gap of racial division.
“Everybody came together for one cause,” she said. "To fight for equality."
The protest even crossed the political aisle.
Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, spoke about Kirby Smith’s history, and had a message for local officials.
“I say to elected officials: listen,” she said. “Let’s remember that the offices we hold don’t belong to us, they belong to you. And elections are right around the corner.”
Former County Commissioner Jimmy Conner, a Republican, also spoke.
“Y’all wanted diversity today. You got a Republican here,” Conner said to cheers.
“Dare I say it you’ve got a Republican that happens to like the president, too,” he said to some boos. “But I despise this Confederate statue.”
Tavares Mayor Troy Singer, Mascotte Mayor Barbra Krull, Groveland Mayor Evelyn Wilson, as well as Mount Dora City Commissioner Marc Crail and Eustis commissioners Marie Aliberti and Bob Morin, also spoke against the statue.
The Democratic opponents challenging Lake County’s Republican members of the House of Representatives also attended. Ryan Morales and Debra Kaplan are vying for the seats of Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, and Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora.
Leesburg Mayor John Christian was in attendance, as well.
Overall, Watkins said he felt the event was a success, and re-upped his commitment to keep fighting the statue.
Mae Hazelton, a vocal critic of the statue, did, too.
“The tone of this event wasn’t any different than the message we’ve been sending: this isn’t right,” Hazelton said. “We have our voices. If the Lake County Commission thought we were done with this Tuesday, they were wrong.”
News-Journal writer C. A. Bridges contributed to this article.