Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and civil-rights activist who founded what is now known as Bethune-Cookman University, has emerged as the favorite to replace a Confederate general as one of Florida's representatives in a set of statues at the U.S. Capitol.
Bethune was the only one of three final nominees to get the votes of all of the members of the Great Floridians Committee during a meeting Wednesday to select a new representative for the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. The committee is charged with helping pick Florida's new figure.
The state is looking to replace Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who has long represented Florida along with John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning. The Legislature voted earlier this year to replace Smith amid a backlash against Confederate symbols following the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
Ultimately, lawmakers will choose Smith's replacement from among three names approved Wednesday by the Great Floridians Committee. The other two finalists are George Washington Jenkins Jr., founder of the iconic Publix grocery stores that dot Florida's cities, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who wrote "The Everglades: River of Grass" and campaigned tirelessly for environmental protection.
In addition to being the only nominee to get the votes of all four members of the committee, Bethune was also the runaway leader among members of the public who submitted names to a website; she received 1,237 recommendations, more than a third of the total. Jenkins was third with 418 recommendations and Douglas was fourth with 270.
Bethune also received the support of several audience members who spoke at Wednesday's meeting. Ashley Robertson, curator of the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation-National Historic Landmark, spoke of the civil rights leader's willingness to stand up to obstacles like the Ku Klux Klan.
"Her courage was infectious, and even today we still feel her presence," Robertson said.
Bethune was born in 1875 in South Carolina and was the child of former slaves, according to the website of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. She died in 1955.
If selected, Bethune would be the hall's first African-American woman commissioned by a state. Rosa Parks was added by Congress. Bethune is also honored at Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., but Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said he didn't believe that should disqualify her from consideration.
"The Legislature is going to examine all three of these candidates to see which one they think is really the best," he said.
Bethune is not the only candidate with support, though. Public comments submitted to the commission, either through writing or in person Wednesday, also touted Jenkins, Douglas and other candidates. The Miami-Dade County Commission for Women, for example, backed Douglas.
"Her most passionate cause, our fragile environment and the beauty of Florida's unique landscape, unites all Floridians regardless of geographic and political differences," Mara Zapata, chairwoman of the commission, wrote. "Her work to save the Everglades changed the way that Floridians viewed their land and their natural resources."