The Confederacy Won't Die Until Florida Does

Election year in the epicenter of lost causes.

Hamilton Nolan September 15, 2020

A house in St. Augustine, Florida, the day after Hurricane Matthew hit in October of 2016. Photo by Jabin Botsford/ The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Labor Day, a plane towed a big blue TRUMP 2020 ban­ner over Cres­cent Beach, the wide, per­fect beach just south of St. Augus­tine that draws vis­i­tors from all over North­east Flori­da. It felt rude. That’s the point. 

It also felt unnec­es­sary. There was no one on that beach left to be swayed. The real beach peo­ple, who live in the tiny beach hous­es strung along Florida’s bar­ri­er islands, and walk down to the beach every day with noth­ing more than a surf­board, are not there to think about pol­i­tics. They’re there for the beach. The major­i­ty of the Labor Day vis­i­tors, who line Cres­cent Beach from hori­zon to hori­zon with pick­up trucks loaded with tents and cool­ers and gen­er­a­tors and all of the detri­tus that wis­er souls leave behind when they go to the beach, are already firm­ly in the Trump camp. Many have their own Trump flags affixed to their trucks, and need no encour­age­ment from planes over­head. Their will­ing­ness to drag the con­cerns of the out­side world onto the beach extends to politics. 

Flori­da is defined by its coast­line. Beach peo­ple spend much of their lives fac­ing out­ward, gaz­ing at the wide, lap­ping sea, with their backs to the roads and cities and human­i­ty. It instills an expan­sive and philo­soph­i­cal mood. Those who ful­ly embrace the beach think most­ly of the weath­er, and the waves, and the fish and the birds. The tawdry ups and downs of the dai­ly news cycle seem fleet­ing and insignif­i­cant com­pared to the entire ocean. Pres­i­dents and nations and cities will rise and fall, but the ocean will still be here. It will, in time, swal­low us all. So enjoy it while it lasts.

It is not the unflap­pable per­spec­tive of the true beach peo­ple that lends Flori­da its rep­u­ta­tion for insan­i­ty. The state’s inte­ri­or is a swel­ter­ing, bug­gy patch­work of small coun­try towns anchored by Walt Dis­ney World, the black hole of the Flori­da uni­verse, which pulls tourists towards it, fil­ter­ing and squeez­ing them for mon­ey as they approach like a blue whale suck­ing in krill. South Flori­da is the trash can of America’s upper mid­dle class, attract­ing that part of the nation’s pop­u­la­tion that is both rich enough to make life deci­sions based upon min­i­miz­ing income tax rates, and vac­u­ous enough to believe that an aggres­sive­ly air con­di­tioned mod­el home on a golf course in a hous­ing devel­op­ment built on what was recent­ly a swamp is the ide­al embod­i­ment of the Amer­i­can dream. North Flori­da is indis­tin­guish­able from Geor­gia or Alaba­ma or Mis­sis­sip­pi, a deep South bas­tion with bet­ter beach­es attached. In this huge and dis­con­nect­ed state, many tribes — rich Yan­kee golfers, surf bums, tourist-fleec­ing busi­ness moguls, immi­grant farm­work­ers, stone cold red­necks, and mil­lions of poor peo­ple whose best prospects are a job dress­ing up as Goofy at the Mag­ic King­dom — coex­ist with­out mingling. 

Pun­dits seek­ing easy polit­i­cal nar­ra­tives in Flori­da will always fail, because there is no coher­ent defin­ing thread that unites all of these fac­tions. (Not even the beach itself — a shock­ing num­ber of Florid­i­ans refuse to ever ven­ture out­side of a space that is air con­di­tioned down to New Jer­sey in Octo­ber” tem­per­a­tures.) The one val­ue that comes clos­est to doing so is racism, which accounts for its won­der­ful util­i­ty as a polit­i­cal tool. For some­one like Don­ald Trump, who doesn’t care to dig too deeply into the intri­ca­cies of any sit­u­a­tion, racism will do. As Con­fed­er­ate flags slow­ly become less social­ly accept­able, Trump ban­ners have tak­en their place. They com­mu­ni­cate the same sen­ti­ments. In Flori­da I have seen sev­er­al trucks fly­ing both of those flags at once, as if mak­ing explic­it the bridge from one to the oth­er. No one here mis­un­der­stands the point. 

St. Augus­tine, where I grew up, is the nation’s old­est city,” claimed for the Span­ish by the explor­er Pedro Menen­dez in 1565. He cel­e­brat­ed his dis­cov­ery by mas­sacring hun­dreds of French peo­ple at an inlet called Matan­zas, now a pop­u­lar local surf spot. A cen­tu­ry lat­er the Span­ish built a big fort, the Castil­lo de San Mar­cos, which trad­ed hands between colo­nial pow­ers in var­i­ous wars over the next sev­er­al hun­dred years. The fort served as a prison for the famous Semi­nole leader Osce­o­la, and today serves as the anchor of down­town St. Augustine’s many tourist attrac­tions. Across the street from the fort, on the bayfront, Mar­tin Luther King Jr. was arrest­ed in June of 1964, while try­ing to inte­grate a local motel, the Mon­son Motor Lodge. (There is a famous pho­to of the motel’s own­er pour­ing acid into its swim­ming pool in response to an inte­grat­ed group of pro­test­ers jump­ing in.) A house that King was rent­ing near Cres­cent Beach was rid­dled with bul­lets dur­ing his time here. When civ­il rights lead­ers tried to march into the plaza down­town, they were beat­en uncon­scious by white mobs. King called St. Augus­tine the most vio­lent and law­less racial sit­u­a­tion in the South.”

Martin Luther King Jr. in a St. Augustine, Florida jail cell. Getty Images

One week ago, the city of St. Augus­tine final­ly removed the Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ment that has sat in that down­town plaza since 1879. The Old­est City has not been dragged into the 21st cen­tu­ry eas­i­ly. When the city com­mis­sion met in July to vote on remov­ing the mon­u­ment, cit­i­zens turned up to inform the com­mis­sion­ers who vot­ed for removal that they would be booed wher­ev­er they appeared in pub­lic: This is gonna be your new life from now on,” one speak­er threat­ened. I’m retired. I can be down here 24 hours a day, sev­en days a week. And I will.” 

I don’t think you under­stand the reper­cus­sions that are gonna come to you,” said anoth­er, a woman from a promi­nent local fam­i­ly. It’s not just gonna be your jobs on the line.” Anoth­er, a young man wear­ing a ban­dan­na and cow­boy hat, declared, Vio­lence. Is on. The table. Thank you.” 

Still, the penis-shaped mon­u­ment, around which gen­er­a­tions of juve­nile delin­quents had lounged around drink­ing in pub­lic after dark, was dug up, packed onto a barge, and moved down the riv­er to a fish camp out­side of town, where it will now sit in more com­fort­ing sur­round­ings. Many Con­fed­er­ate flag-wav­ing locals crit­i­cized the $236,000 that the city spent to move the mon­u­ment, and right­ly so. It could have been dumped direct­ly into the riv­er for a much low­er cost. That’s what we get for try­ing to pre­serve these things. 

The Con­fed­er­ates lost more than 150 years ago, but the South is still not rid of them. The sym­bols may change, but the mind­state car­ries on through the gen­er­a­tions. Poor white peo­ple have always been the boo­gie men of South­ern racism, but it is the golf course types, the boats-and-Ben­zes crowd, that you real­ly need to watch out for. The vio­lent racism that Mar­tin Luther King Jr. found in St. Augus­tine became the sneer­ing Rush Lim­baugh-style racism of my youth, which became the wheedling, slick-haired Ron DeSan­tis racism of today. There are Trump signs by the new can­dy fac­to­ry by the local hos­pi­tal, and by the shab­by strip mall with the Thrift Store and the World Gym; there are Trump signs on expen­sive hous­es down­town, and on the sub­ur­ban lawns, and on the clean new hous­es that have sprout­ed along state­ly Mag­no­lia Avenue, just by the entrance to the Foun­tain of Youth, where my friends and I used to sneak in as kids to gulp the munic­i­pal water that is repack­aged as Ponce de Leon’s mag­i­cal elixir; there is a giant Q” flag along A1A, not far from the St. Augus­tine light­house, and an even big­ger ban­ner read­ing TRUMP 2020 — MAKE LIB­ER­ALS CRY AGAIN” hung from a bayfront house close to where the Mon­son Motor Lodge used to be. The old men of St. Johns Coun­ty who joined the Klan and beat civ­il rights marchers in the 1960s had kids who became local Repub­li­can busi­ness­men, and grand­kids who now affix Trump flags to large poles on the back of their Ford F‑150s that flap sharply while they dri­ve to Home Depot, lis­ten­ing to hip hop on a Jack­sonville radio sta­tion. Lin­col­nville, the his­toric Black neigh­bor­hood close to down­town St. Augus­tine that served as the start­ing point of King’s civ­il rights march­es, has now been large­ly gen­tri­fied, and if you dri­ve its streets you will even find Trump signs there — but only on the nicest and newest houses. 

Every one of these Trump signs is a malev­o­lent lit­tle blis­ter ris­ing up from the skin of the nice small town where I was raised, and a reminder of what made me leave. The beat­ing sun has bestowed Flori­da with every­thing it has, but it has also made it always and for­ev­er a hot, hard place. It is often observed, when you get out into the lit­tle coun­try towns where sheriff’s deputies reign supreme and Black neigh­bor­hoods are some­times full of shacks, that not much has changed around here since 1860. That is true, but it doesn’t quite cap­ture what sets Flori­da apart from the rest of the South. Here — when you brush away the golf cours­es and the McMan­sions and the tourist traps, all of which will be reclaimed by nature soon enough — not much has changed since 1565, when Pedro Menen­dez cel­e­brat­ed the found­ing of my home­town by chop­ping up the French sol­diers who had arrived before him, in the name of the king and the church. Flori­da is and has always been a place beset by invaders. Inva­sive con­quis­ta­dors; inva­sive species; inva­sive devel­op­ers; inva­sive politi­cians; all seek­ing to squeeze the state like an orange, to drink its juice and move on. 

Don­ald Trump won Flori­da by a sin­gle point in 2016. He needs to win it again, or his chances for reelec­tion are dim. Every­one knows it will be close. That’s all there is to know. It is tempt­ing, always tempt­ing, to judge that Flori­da is poised at an excit­ing turn­ing point — a vibrant and diverse state, for­ev­er on the edge of turn­ing blue. But it is a mis­take to get too hope­ful about this place. The gators bite and the mos­qui­toes swarm, and every­thing is des­tined to blow away in a hur­ri­cane. This is not a friend­ly place, no mat­ter what Mick­ey Mouse would have you believe. There’s a gun in every glove com­part­ment. We’re not sup­posed to be here. The Con­fed­er­a­cy will last for­ev­er in Flori­da, because Flori­da itself is a tes­ta­ment to belief in a lost cause. The lure of the beach is that if you stand there, fac­ing out towards the water, you can for­get about every­thing else that is hap­pen­ing in the state locat­ed behind you. And when it all begins to crum­ble at last, you can walk ahead, and swim away. 


Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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