There’s No Gray Area In Flag Flap

The Tampa Tribune
Published: June 5, 2008

TAMPA – The local black community is mobilizing, but it appears more and more likely that Hillsborough County soon will be known as home to one of the country’s largest Confederate battle flags.

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised the flag Tuesday at the junction of Interstate 75 and U.S. 92, setting off a fiery debate over Southern heritage, racism and private-property rights.

Tuesday was Confederacy President Jefferson Davis’ birthday. The Sons group apparently did not intend to leave the flag up all the time and, according to County Commissioner Kevin White, took it down Tuesday night.

But at a county commission meeting Wednesday morning, it became apparent the only way 200,000 motorists a day won’t drive by the 30-by-50-foot flag on its 139-foot pole at times is if the Sons group changes its mind. Plans call for the flag to be part of a Confederate memorial scheduled to be dedicated April 26, Confederate Memorial Day.

After discovering they have no legal means to prohibit the gigantic flag, county commissioners pleaded with the group to voluntarily not fly it and avoid fracturing the community along racial lines.

That doesn’t appear likely.

"I think we’re pretty firm in our resolve," said Phil Walters, a spokesman for the group.

Black county residents, for whom the flag represents slavery and racism, vowed it would come down. They threatened an economic boycott and protests that could sully the county’s image as the nation focuses on Tampa in January as the site of the Super Bowl.

"You have a passive black community in Hillsborough County," said Eddie Adams, a black candidate for Congress in the 11th District. "This is going to awake a sleeping giant."

The issue already has drawn the attention of the county’s tourism officials. A spokesman with Tampa Bay & Co., the county’s tourism agency, said the group opposes flying the Confederate flag and will meet soon to decide whether to become involved in the dispute.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita asked the county’s legal staff to examine permits issued to the Sons group to make sure the flag meets zoning requirements for size and setbacks from property lines. Assistant County Attorney Adam Gormley said the flag, which would be on private property, complied with all county codes.

Ferlita acknowledged the Sons group’s right to honor their ancestors but asked that they do it in a way that respects the feelings of black residents and others offended by the flag.

"History is history, but let’s not be offensive to other people who don’t have the same aspect of history as you have," Ferlita said.

Commissioner Jim Norman recalled a similar controversy years ago when civil rights groups pushed to have the Confederate battle flag removed from the county seal. The county adopted a new seal, and now the Confederate flag is displayed in the County Center with other flags that have flown over Florida.

"Calmer heads, calmer minds came through and saw how we could address that with respect to both sides," Norman said. "The war existed, people died, slavery happened, but that’s not who we are today and let’s move forward in the future."

Last year, the commission declined to endorse Confederate Memorial Day, which had been an annual tradition. Since that action, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have come to almost every commission meeting asking that the day be recognized.

On Wednesday, Marion Lambert of the Sons group hinted that raising the flag was related to the commission’s slight of the memorial day recognition. "We have come to you numerous times. … All we ask for is recognition and a piece of paper, a simple honor given to us in representative form of our heritage," he said.

Bart Siegel, a member of the Sons group, challenged those who opposed the flag to a debate on historical aspects of the Confederacy’s place in American history. "Therefore, I challenge those that insist on calling the Confederate battle flag a symbol of hate to a debate," Siegel said. "I personally think they are wrong, and they owe the South an apology."

Michelle Williams, representing the Community Activists of Public Affairs, demonstrated the outrage that the flag has generated in the black community by showing the commission posters of blacks lynched in Florida after the Civil War.

"There is a right way and wrong way to respect history," Williams said. "You don’t see us out there flying flags of lynching."

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