Officials, activists and clergy leaders in Florida’s only predominantly Black county are calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis and his appointee to answer questions about a recently surfaced photo that shows the now former county commissioner in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
DeSantis appointed Jeffrey Moore to the Gadsden County in July after another commissioner resigned. Moore also abruptly vacated his seat last Friday after word of the photo circulated. The community leaders want Moore to “come forward,” and they demand a response from the state governor.
“What we’re asking for today is that, first, commissioner Moore just step up and be a man,” president of the NAACP Tallahassee Chapter Mutaqee Akbar said during a Wednesday news conference. “At least acknowledge it because you owe that to the citizens of Gadsden County.”
It is unclear who released the photo less than two months before the Nov. 8 election in which Moore planned to vie for the seat before dropping out of the race last week.
Local Black leaders enlarged the photo and another of the former Republican commissioner being sworn in and put them on display during the press conference on Wednesday. Moore is pictured with four other people who appear to be dancing and drinking as a fake skeleton hangs from the ceiling in the background. Moore raised his hand in the photo, and the hood sat above his head.
“We are in the middle of hurricane prep, I’m not aware of the photo you sent, but Jeff did submit his resignation last week,” DeSantis’ communications director Taryn Fenske told Politico.
Gadsden County Sheriff Morris A. Young told Politico that Moore confirmed that it was him in the photo. Young received the image from someone last Tuesday.
“He never denied at all. Refuted nothing when I showed him the pictures,” Young said. “I thought he needed to resign, and I told him that.”
It is not the first time that a DeSantis appointee has been caught in a racist scandal. The governor’s secretary of state, Michael Ertel, resigned in 2019 after photos of him posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim in blackface at a private Halloween party were released.
“If you can come here for photo ops whenever it benefits your office, (you can) come back for another … and speak to the citizens of Gadsden County,” Akbar said, referring to DeSantis. “Ensure them that you’ll do whatever background check or historical checks you need to do to make sure these citizens are not insulted like this ever again.”
Gadsden County is part of the Tallahassee metro area. Census data shows that about 55 percent of the county’s 43,826 residents are Black. Half of the population in Havana, Florida, Moore’s former district, is Black. Some of the other cities in the county such as Midway and Gretna are more than 80 percent Black.
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, who attended the conference on Wednesday, recalled growing up in “a highly segregated” Gadsden County.
“It’s a slap in the face to the African American community in Gadsden County,” he said. “When I first saw it, I just couldn’t believe (it). It brought back deep wounds and memories not just for me but for many other African Americans in this community.”
Others reflected on public lynchings outside the courthouse a few decades ago, where the Black leaders now rallied outside against Moore and DeSantis. Two years before, a local lawyer lobbied for a confederate monument in front of the building to be taken down. It had been there for 136 years before the county commission approved its removal.
Many of the Black community leaders and elected officials said they were not shocked that DeSantis would select someone for a position who would pose in that KKK garb. While running for governor in 2018, he faced backlash for telling voters not to “monkey this up” while running against a Black candidate.
“I’m not surprised Gov. DeSantis would appoint someone with this ideology,” Akbar said. “Even if they didn’t know about the picture, it’s the kind of person I can see him picking.”
While in office for the last four years, DeSantis has pushed policies aimed at restricting critical race theory in Florida schools, discussions on race in the workplace and “wokeness.” He also pushed for a new congressional map that split some predominantly Black voting districts, including Lawson’s.
“What this emotion is about — it’s not necessarily about a picture that’s 30,40, 50 years old — it’s about everything that comes along with seeing that picture, that robe and everything that (it) stands for,” Akbar said.