By Joel Moroney
Local resident Robert Gates hopes to buy his biracial daughter a Southern Heritage plate for her car.
At the plate’s center sits the most contentious flag in American history — one that continues its fight in the court of public opinion 140 years after it left the battlefield, according to Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Mass.
The Confederate Flag. The Confederate Battle Flag to be more precise — most people could not pick the lesser known Confederate National Flag out of a lineup, Smith said.
Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans hope to get the required 30,000 signatures and raise the $60,000 application fee to move the plate through the legislature next year, according to John Adams of Deltona, the group’s plate program chairman.
Sons of Confederate Veterans has been successful in getting the plates in nine other states.
But most of those states allow the plate only for Sons of Confederate Veterans — Florida law would require them to be available to everyone.
Adams expects a war chest of at least another $120,000 will be needed to pay for advertising and fend off expected legal challenges.
“There have been a lot of flags that have been used and lost. But this one is the most powerful,” said Smith, noting the clash between those who contend it is a rebel piece of southern history for which ancestors died and those who feel it carries heavy racist connotations.
The Fort Myers area is steeped in Confederate history.
Lee, the Confederate general, is Lee County’s namesake and his portrait hangs in commission chambers.
And Brant Stanford, the last son of a Confederate sailor, died on Pine Island in March.
“The fundamental question is what is attributed to a piece of cloth,” Smith said. “The answer is, it’s the stories that have been told about it.”
For Gates, who is the local commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it is the stories of ancestors who fought on Civil War battlefields for the rights of southern states.
“What we have been trying to do for years is take the negative heritage out of it,” Gates said.
Gates and Adams said money raised from the sale of the plates will go toward education, restoration of relics and other worthwhile purposes.
The group recently got Lee County commissioners to declare April Confederate History Month and spent several thousand dollars refurbishing the downtown bust of Robert E. Lee.
But when it comes to the Confederate Flag, it’s divisive nature is not lost on Nina Rogers, historian of the Fort Myers Black History Museum.
“It’s always been a raw nerve with black people,” Rogers said. “Whenever we saw it … we knew it had hatred and violence connected with it.”
Charles Dailey, former president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, knows both sides of the issue.
“Anytime that we begin to move for legislation then we have to be extremely sensitive on the impact it could have on our society,” Dailey said. “Slavery is an immoral issue. I think our legislators have to be sensitive. Everyone can clearly state that there is a historical significance.”
Adams claims the racist connotation came largely as a result of misuse of the flag by hate groups in the 1960s.
“Something caused the wrong people to take up our flag and use it in a manner that did not honor the soldiers that carried it,” Adams said.
Adams said the plate will celebrate the south’s diversity and includes a gold medallion honoring Native American troops that fought on the side of the Confederates.
And the group has made a donation of relics to the local black history museum, including photographs of black Confederate soldiers.
“The Confederate Flag is probably the most misunderstood flag in the world,” said Nelson Winbush, 77, of Kissimmee, a black member of Sons of Confederate Veterans whose grandfather fought for the Confederacy.
Winbush said the Confederate Battle Flag — the one everyone is familiar with — was created because the Confederate National Flag too closely resembled the United State’s flag on the battle field.
“Skinheads and the Klu Klux Klan and all that (bullcrap) wasn’t even thought of,” Winbush said. “It’s really Florida history.”
Still Smith, the flag historian, said the debate may never be completely resolved “simply because the country itself has different perspectives.
“It’s their belief that makes a difference,” he said. “Flags are a matter of believing and the minute people stop believing it stops having meaning.”