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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

In Context: Koch, Kirby Smith

The fortune of the Kansas-based brothers, Charles and David Koch, reportedly went over $100 billion last week. According to the respected business magazine Forbes, it grew during the previous year from $68 billion to $80 billion. Or, as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said: “Under the ‘anti-business,’ ‘socialist,” and ‘oppressive’ Obama administration, their wealth went up by $12 billion in one year.”

Most of this money is based in the petroleum business, and for the rest of us, it is gasoline prices that are simultaneously going up. Business reporters used to inquire about the “reasons” for weekly ups and downs at the pump, but I guess they have deserted that cause; we rarely see any justifications anymore. My question: why isn’t the Justice Department inquiring? We still have anti-trust laws on the books, and clearly someone is fixing prices.

Because hubby wants to avoid interstates when we put the top down on his little Miata – a glorious thing to do in spring – we recently went from Pinellas to East Hillsborough on back roads. There were plenty of gas stations, and at all except the one where he happened to stop, the lowest price was $3.69. That’s every brand in every little community from downtown St. Pete to Mango, except the Shell station where he pulled in before noticing that it was $3.76. Everywhere else was $3.69, as though that were some sort of law.

And indeed the oligarchs who are running things these days have become so adept at their law breaking -- and at blaming government for everything -- that it wouldn’t surprise me if indeed many people think that the government does set gas prices.

I think it would prove very popular – as well as legally and morally just – if the Obama administration started going after today’s robber barons. I doubt that anyone can make multiple billions of dollars annually, especially in an established industry, without doing something illegal. Moreover, our tax structure has subsidized giant petroleum companies for decades, while we starve the true entrepreneurs who would build solar, wind, and other forms of energy.

Attorney General Eric Holder should pursue these monopolists with a flaming sword. It would be the right and just thing to do, as well as an election winner. I suspect that the chief reason for inaction is that Congress keeps the IRS and the Justice Department on a budget that is too tight to hire the expert accountants and lawyers needed to win such cases. And the rich keep getting richer, while democracy dies.

Too many people will believe the lies that the Kochs and other oligarchs will spew on television in the coming months, and blinded by advertising, they will vote for the congressional puppets of these plutocrats. Then those same voters will complain that nothing changes. November’s election will be the Obama administration’s last chance to do something about concentration of wealth, and I truly hope it is the central issue of the campaign. And may every major white-collar lawbreaker and tax evader see the inside of a jail! Nothing is more important to a democratic government and a thriving economy.

* * *

Complete change of subject. I’ve had a note to myself in my inbox for months to remind me to write about this topic. It began with reading a New York Times article on December 17, which was datelined Jacksonville and headlined “Fla. School Named for South General to Be Changed.” A good copyeditor should have tackled that awkward language, but the gist of the article was that the Duval County School Board was accepting the petition of high school students for a new name.

It had honored Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is seen today as a notorious racist. He was beloved by the Ku Klux Klan, and as a Confederate general, was responsible for the blatant execution of hundreds of prisoners of war. They had been captured at the Battle of Olustee, a town near Lake City, where the South managed to defeat a Union army that included black soldiers. Outraged to see black men in uniform, Forrest ordered them killed.

It reminded me of something else that I’ve long wanted to tackle. You may know that each of the fifty states is allowed to display two statues in the national Capitol in Washington. It is up to the state to decide whom to commemorate, and several states recently have revisited their history for more inclusive representation. It’s time for us to do the same with one of our two.

The one that should remain is of John Gorrie, the Apalachicola physician who, in the 1840s, pioneered ice manufacturing and air conditioning to cool his fevered patients. Gorrie died impoverished, and it would take almost a century before his scientific principles were widely accepted – but his research ultimately was the beginning of the most important factor in making Florida what it is today. We would not be the third-biggest state without air conditioning.

Our other statue is of Edmund Kirby Smith. Usually called by his middle name, Kirby Smith is analogous to Nathan Bedford Forrest as a Confederate leader who fought hard to preserve slavery. I was shocked when I went to the new Capitol Visitors Center a few days after it opened and saw that he has a prominent place. He also lived very little of his life in Florida, and instead, the 1922 placement of the statue was a tribute to the revived Klan of that era.

The modern historians who work for the National Statuary Hall Collection, however, have done their best to make his bio look respectable. Born to a prominent family in St. Augustine, he graduated from the Army’s academy at West Point, New York, in 1845. He immediately went on to that era’s war, the Mexican War of 1846-1848, the one in which we invaded Mexico and took its territory from Texas to California. Smith did some study of botany in Mexico for the new Smithsonian Institute and then taught math at West Point until the Civil War began in 1861. Then he switched sides and became a Confederate general.

That terrible war ended in 1865, and unrepentant Southerners heralded Kirby Smith for being the very last general to surrender his troops. Yet Smith, educated in military science at Union expense, arguably had more treason in mind when he joined with other Rebels who made plans to continue the war from Mexico. That came to naught, however, and he lived out the rest of his life in Tennessee, where he held educational posts and invested in the expanding telegraph industry.

He hardly is the greatest or second-greatest or any sort of greatest Floridian of all time! Indeed, Kirby Smith was too obscure even to be included in the old standard of Webster’s American Biographies, which listed thousands of people (most of them white men). We truly need to replace his image with that of someone more worthy.

I nominate Mary McLeod Bethune, whose school in Daytona was threatened by Klansmen at the same time that Kirby Smith’s statue was placed in Washington. She did much more than build Bethune-Cookman College, and when President Harry Truman appointed her to the founding of the new United Nations in 1945, she was the only woman of color in the entire world who had an official status.

But there are lots of other Floridians who could merit this honor. Maybe a statue of Pedro Menendez de Avilas would inform other Americans that his 1565 settlement at St. Augustine was decades prior to that of Virginia’s Jamestown in 1607 and Massachusetts’ Plymouth in 1620. Or maybe proud Seminoles such as Osceola: that tribe fought fiercely from 1816 to 1858, attempting to hold on to their homeland.

If we need another white man from a century ago, Napoleon Broward would be a good choice: public aid to education expanded greatly during his administration; he also was an environmentalist and created a state health department. His wife, Annie Broward, worked for women’s right to vote. She was a colleague of Ivy Stranahan, who founded Fort Lauderdale with her husband, and Julia Tuttle -- who founded Miami pretty much on her own. Miami’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas lobbied with them in the early days of her remarkable107-year life.

I checked the first encyclopedia we ever bought – Collier’s in 1966 -- for who was seen as “Prominent Floridians” back then. Even in that pre-feminist era, three of the ten listed were women: Tuttle, as well as novelists Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston. I have to admit that I was surprised that Hurston, an African-American, made this tough cut that early. She died in 1960, and the only living person in the list was Claude Pepper, surely another worthy nominee.

Let me know what you think, but let’s replace Kirby Smith!


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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