Justice Department weighs in on flag issue

BY ELGIN JONES  

HOMESTEAD — The United States Department of Justice has begun monitoring the escalating controversy over the display of the Confederate battle flag in Homestead.

Justice Department officials would not comment on their specific plans, but civil rights organizations say they will hold a press conference on the steps of Homestead City Hall on June 11.

“I’m not in any position to comment,” said Mildred I. Duprey de Robles, a conciliation specialist who is based in the Miami office of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service.

De Robles made her comments while attending a strategy meeting of civil rights groups and community leaders in Homestead on Thursday, May 28.  Organizers held the meeting to map out plans on how to block the display of the controversial flag at publicly sanctioned events in the city.

Supporters of the Confederate flag say it is a symbol of southern pride. Opponents, including many members of the black community, say it is a reminder of slavery, lynching and racial intolerance.

About 20 people attended Thursday’s meeting, including officials with the Miami-Dade NAACP and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE). They joined local civic leaders at the closed-door meeting, which took place at a private business. The meeting lasted just over three hours.

De Robles spoke to the group about the federal agency’s mediation programs, which she said can  help resolve the dispute.

When a reporter for the South Florida Times asked her about specific steps the agency is taking, or might be considering, she referred all questions to her department’s regional director, Thomas Battles, who could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Community Relations Service is known as the Justice Department’s “peacemaker” regarding  community conflicts and tensions based on race, color and national origin, according to its website. The agency does not take sides in any conflicts.

Last year, for example, the Community Relations Service organized racial sensitivity training workshops at a Pembroke Pines charter school after a noose was hung in plain view of a group of black students there. The noose is also regarded by many members of the black community as a symbol of racist lynchings in the old South.

At Thursday’s meeting, organizers discussed plans for a previously announced protest march of the Confederate flag, a list of demands and a possible economic boycott, but no specific details were provided.

“We will announce all of our plans at the June 11 press conference,” said Brad Brown, vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP.

“City Hall represents the powers that be, and it is very appropriate because that is where policies are made, and their failing to address the issue is what has caused this escalation,” said Jimmie Williams, pastor of Greater New Mount Zion AME Church in Homestead. Williams is also the area director for PULSE.

The meeting took place just days after business leaders recommended that Homestead’s annual Veterans Day parade – a 47-year tradition – be canceled.

“At their monthly meeting on May 21, the Board of Directors of the Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce voted to recommend that its Military Affairs Committee discontinue their 47-year tradition of producing Miami-Dade County’s oldest and largest Veterans Day parade,” said Mary Finlan, the chamber’s executive director, in an email to the South Florida Times on Friday, May 22.

Chamber officials say the escalating controversy has tarnished the parade’s intended purpose. The recommendation will go to the Military Affairs Committee. The Military Affairs Committee is set to make a final decision on the Veterans Day parade at a meeting on June 4.

“Members of the board stated that the mission of the parade has been greatly diminished due to the controversy concerning parade participants, causing the focus to shift away from the military men and women it was intended to honor,” Finlan said in her statement.

With donations from businesses and in-kind support such as police, clean-up and traffic control from the city, the Chamber of Commerce organizes the parade. The decision means the highly attended annual parade in the city, where an Air Force base and other military installations are located, could be no more.

The controversy surrounds a decision by the chamber’s Military Affairs Committee to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Confederate States organizations to march and display the Confederate battle flag during the 2008 Veterans Day parade.

The move to allow Confederate States organizations into the parade sparked outrage from black parade goers who said they were stunned and offended by the groups and their flags. Residents then urged city officials to bar the groups from future taxpayer-funded events. City officials refused, saying they have no role in organizing the parade, and only provide in-kind support.

A South Florida Times review, however, found that five of the seven city council members actually sit on the chamber’s Military Affairs Committee. Chamber officials insist they were not involved in the parade decision making.

“You have to pick your battles, and I don’t think ending a Veterans Day parade and excluding groups that honor veterans is a wise choice,” said Chuck McMichael, commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, from his Blanchard, La. home. “All the Sons of Confederate Veterans are trying to do is honor American soldiers who fought for their principles.”

Officials with the NAACP have also criticized the decision to end the parade.

“This is amazing. They are sticking their heads in the sand, and it does nothing to address the issue,” said Brown, the NAACP’s first vice president.

The recommendation to end the parade comes just days after the NAACP announced plans for a protest march, and plans to target Homestead’s city council members for defeat in the upcoming municipal elections.

NAACP members are also considering an economic boycott of Chamber of Commerce member businesses, as well as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), which holds championship races for the league’s top three series in Homestead in November.

The NASCAR championship races are scheduled to start one week after Veterans Day, and two weeks after the city’s municipal elections.

NASCAR already bans Confederacy memorabilia and symbols, including the flag, according to a spokesman. But it has no control over fans who might bring Confederate flags into race tracks that NASCAR does not own, such as the Homestead-Miami Motor Speedway.

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