FRUITLAND PARK – It may be "The Year of Lee," but it remains to be seen whether this is the year that the Florida Legislature approves a "Confederate Heritage" specialty license plate.

Saturday night in Fruitland Park, the Leesburg-based camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans – Pvt. William Riley Milton, Camp 741 – held its 13th Annual Lee-Jackson Ball, honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

Both had January birthdays. A table was set for the two dead warriors and toasts were giving with their favorite beverages – lemonade (Lee’s choice) or buttermilk (Jackson’s choice).

The event, staged in the building known as The Casino, drew around 60 Confederate Sons and Daughters from Central Florida, including a healthy contingent from Marion County.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is a member of the Sons and was the featured speaker.

Robert E. Lee was born 200 years ago on Jan. 19, 1807. That’s why the national leaders of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have officially proclaimed 2007 as "The Year of Lee."

The Confederate Heritage license plate was conceived by the Sons as a means of providing a steady source of revenue to help fund their heritage preservation efforts. The plate must be approved by the Legislature.

Baxley said he is a member of the Sons through his great-great-great-grandfather, a foot soldier named William James Baxley, who died in hospital at the age of 43. His widow subsequently moved to Florida with her four children to make a new life.

"It was a great story of hope. I’m now a fifth-generation Floridian," Baxley said.

"What so many people forget is that the war was fought in the South.

[Confederate soldiers] gave themselves to prevent harm to their home and family. They knew that their families were in harm’s way, and they knew they had to protect. We need to still cherish that."

On the subject of the license plate, Baxley said, "I’m the Speaker pro tem. My role is a foot-washing role. I have 120 pair of feet to wash. As the Speaker pro tem, I usually don’t sponsor bills."

Baxley described his role in the license plate saga as a backstage role, working with other legislators and the division of motor vehicles.

"I wrote to the division of licenses to get a memorial plate working through the system," Baxley said.

"I don’t know what … the climate will be. I hope it will be seen in the proper light. There has to be something done to preserve history, or there won’t be any history left to preserve," he said. "I don’t want to ever forget the value of faith, family and freedom."

Baxley said he also was a co-sponsor of the bill authorizing the Martin Luther King Jr. specialty plate.

He also said he supported a bill naming a portion of U.S. 301 after Rosa Parks, a recently deceased hero of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, organized in 1896, is open to male descendants of the those who fought as part of the Confederate forces during the Civil War.

© Copyright 2007, The Ocala Star-Banner,

On The Web: