By Bob Johnson
The Associated Press

VERBENA — A huge Confederate battle flag flying over Interstate 65 north of Montgomery will become a permanent fixture, according to officials with the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The organization bought land on the side of the interstate near Verbena and put up the flag, which has been flying for several months above the tree lines from the top of a large pole, easily visible from the heavily traveled interstate.

Leonard Wilson, commander of the Alabama division of Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the flag will be dedicated in a ceremony at 5 p.m. on June 26. The flag is located on a little more than half an acre of land just north of where Autauga County 68 crosses over the interstate, about six miles south of the Verbena exit. The land was purchased last December by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, according to the deed on file in Autauga County.

"We put the flag up so people could see it," Wilson said. "We are showing off our heritage. The flag is part of our heritage."

Critics of Confederate flag displays say they are reminders of the slavery era and Alabama’s racist past, and can damage Alabama’s image when flown beside a busy interstate route to Gulf beaches.

Wilson said the Confederate heritage organization had been looking for some time for an appropriate place to fly the flag where it would get maximum exposure.

"I think anybody that sees it will give pause to reflect on history," Wilson said.

The flag is visible for some distance to cars traveling in both directions and some people have been seen stopping to take pictures. It’s located along a section of the interstate known for extravagant displays, including a water tower shaped as a peach and a billboard with the message, "Go to Church or the Devil will get you!"

The presence of the giant flag, about the size of banners often seen flying over car dealerships, has upset Birmingham civil rights activist and radio talk show host Frank Matthews, who says he believes the flag violates the state law regulating the size and position of billboards along public highways.

Matthews said he plans to organize a protest and questions whether taxpayer money was spent to enhance the appearance of the flag, pointing to rocks that cover the hillside below the flagpole.

Tony Harris, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation, said the rocks were placed on the hillside in 2000 and 2001 as part of a project to control erosion and prevent parts of the hill from sliding into the southbound lanes of the interstate. He said the project was completed years before the Sons of Confederate Veterans purchased the property and had nothing to do with the flag.

Harris also said DOT officials have investigated the issue and believe the flag is not covered by laws and rules regulating billboards.

The flag is similar to a large Confederate banner flying on land owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans along I-75 in Florida. The national membership coordinator for the organization, Bryan Sharp, said it’s important for the flag to be visible.

"We think it’s very important for our organization to teach people what happened in our own backyard. They don’t teach what happened in The War Between the States anymore," said Sharp from his office at the organization’s national headquarters in Columbia, Tenn.

Sharp said he disagrees with critics who see the flag as a reminder of slavery.

"A lot of farm boys, who never had enough money to own a slave, went off to war. They were left with nothing. A lot of people have forgotten that. We have tried to bring awareness to the sacrifices those men made," Sharp said.

State Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, an outspoken critic of the Confederate flag flying from public buildings or on taxpayer owned property, said he’s concerned the location of the flag along a main route from northern and midwestern states to Gulf Coast beaches will hurt the state’s image.

"But legally I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it because it’s on private property," said Holmes, who was once arrested along with other black legislators for trying to remove a Confederate flag that at the time flew from the dome of the state Capitol.

Holmes said he believes for many people the flag "represents slavery, racism and oppression" and urged the Sons of Confederate Veterans to take it down.

"Alabama already has a bad image and when people using that highway see that flag it will only legitimize what was already in their minds about Alabama."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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