Meeting About Flag Doesn’t Fix Divide

The Tampa Tribune
Published: July 27, 2008

TAMPA – They sat at the same tables inside Alessi Italian Bar & Grille on Saturday, but those who support and oppose a giant Confederate battle flag to be flown within view of Interstates 4 and 75 appear as divided as ever.

In April, the Sons of Confederate Veterans plan to fly the 50-foot-by-30-foot flag that inspired rebel soldiers atop a pole half as tall as a football field is long. The flag is part of a Confederate memorial that includes a lighted park and 30 bronze plaques set in granite telling Civil War stories.

The memorial sits on private property, and the plans have been approved by the County Commission. The banner is one of five being erected as part of a project called Flags Across Florida.

The plans, however, have drawn the ire of activists in the black community, who say the flag represents racism.

Representatives of both sides of the debate voiced their positions at Saturday’s luncheon before an audience of barely more than a dozen people. The event was organized by Alvin McCray of Tampa, a member of both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

McCray said he had invited more than 100 churches, four county commissioners and a City Council member and was disappointed by the low turnout.

"It’s sad. I’m hoping for a healthy debate," McCray said.

One of those to offer a compromise on the flag was Tampa resident Willis K.C. Bowick, who suggested the Sons fly the flag on Confederate holidays or in some other fashion that respects everyone’s feelings.

"You can have it all you want to," Bowick said of the flag. "Do it in a way that people are going to come in and embrace you as a friend and a partner."

Property owner Marion Lambert, 60, a member of the Sons, rejected that idea, saying organizers would be disappointed if such a compromise were made.

"I think that flag needs to fly," he said. "I’m sick and tired of being divided black and white. I’m suggesting this is a symbol that should be recognized throughout the South. …There’s a commonality, a bond."

Supporters of the project include Nelson Winbush, 78, of Kissimmee, a black man whose grandfather fought for the South in the Civil War.

Not everyone shares that view, said activist Michelle Williams, 40, who said one of her relatives was hanged by the Ku Klux Klan decades ago.

Williams said she respected the Sons wanting to celebrate their heritage but found the project divisive. "At 140 feet in the air, that’s not teaching anybody a history lesson."

Lunelle Siegel of Temple Terrace, a commercial loan officer who helps the Sons with their Web site, said the group has tried to sue to have the flag protected from those who have displayed it out of context.

"I’m here today to try to take back what was hijacked from all Southerners," she said. "It was created to save the lives of a people during a cruel and difficult war. I’d like to educate those who are misinformed, as well as those who hijacked it as a symbol of hate."

McCray said he planned to hold additional gatherings, though some said they had little hope additional meetings would help bring the two sides together.

"How many times can we say no? No? Absolutely not? Hell no?" Williams said, triggering a few chuckles from the audience.

Nondenominational minister Belinda Womack, a black woman "born and raised in the slums" of Georgia and an acquaintance of Lambert’s for about 14 years, encouraged those gathered to continue their dialogue.

"I believe on each side of the table, the misunderstanding is inherent and apparent," she said. She urged everyone to "not just beat each other over the heads with our past" but to work together to move forward.

"Perception without truth, knowledge and understanding is ignorance," Womack said. "Let’s continue to pray together and talk together."

©2008 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.

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