Hard feelings unfurl with huge Confederate flag

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer In print: Thursday, June 5, 2008

TAMPA — Marion Lambert had hinted for months that he had big plans for Hillsborough County.

If commissioners wouldn’t acknowledge Southern heritage with a simple proclamation, he would take his cause directly to the public.

He made good this week by unfurling a 30-by-50 foot Confederate battle flag at the junction of two major interstates that bisect Hillsborough. A rebel yell if ever there was one.

"All we asked for was recognition and just a piece of paper," Lambert, a member of Jubal A. Early Camp 556 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told commissioners on Wednesday. "All we want is to be honored for who we are."

Commissioners found themselves pleading with Lambert and some of his supporters to reconsider. They appealed to his sense of civic responsibility, warning that the flag would divide the community.

"It’s not that you honor it," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita. "It’s how you honor it."

Commissioner Mark Sharpe read from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s own words, which preached restraint toward a foe. One could hear in it a variation on a popular modern query: "What would Lee do?"

"I don’t think Lee would do this," said Sharpe, answering the question.

Commissioners got a strong sense of the potential backlash to come. They have struggled with similar disputes in the past, including protests 15 years ago over the old county seal, since replaced, which included a Confederate flag.

Community activist Michelle Williams said the flag still sends a painful message to some in the community. She displayed large photographic images of black men lynched during the reign of terror led by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan from the late 1800s until the 1960s, using the Confederate flag as one of their symbols.

She pulled out a noose, and waved it at Lambert.

"You want to put that flag up and you want to remind people what it stands for?" asked Williams, her voice rising in volume. "It’s not going to happen."

Lambert unveiled the flag Tuesday on property he bought four years ago near the junction of Interstates 4 and 75. The flag has been taken down, but will return permanently, possibly in a month or so, as part of a memorial to Confederate veterans.

An attorney for the county told commissioners that they likely have little recourse; Lambert followed all the permitting rules.

Lambert is part of a small group that had sought a proclamation from commissioners naming April 2007 Southern Heritage Month. Commissioners had granted the annual proclamation request in the past.

But they had faced criticism two months earlier for honoring the birthday anniversary of Lee on the same day they recognized the achievements of a long-time black educator. When Southern Heritage Month came, a majority of commissioners refused to sign the proclamation.

They refused to sign again this year.

Similar flags have gone up in the North Florida community of Havana, as well as White Springs in Suwannee County, said Lambert, who is co-chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Flags Across Florida project. It is a response to what Lambert says are increasing slights to Confederate heritage.

The one in Hillsborough won the attention of CNN and Fox News. The Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, criticized plans for it Wednesday, saying the flag has been used by hate groups as a symbol of white supremacy.

Lambert is not fazed. And he said it won’t matter if Hillsborough commissioners change their mind on proclamations in the future. The flag is going up for thousands to see on a daily basis.

"We’ve been marginalized, put off the table," Lambert said. "Now they want to talk to us?

"Hey, your wife’s done left you."

© 2008 · St. Petersburg Times

On The Web: http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/article607830.ece