TAMPA — Backers and opponents of a huge Confederate flag in east Hillsborough met Saturday to air their differences. After two hours, nothing appeared to have changed.
Community activists and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group responsible for a Confederate monument on U.S. 92 near Interstate 4 and a prominently displayed Confederate flag to come, had some of the "dialogue" sought by organizers of the event.
But the flag will still fly. And its opponents promise not to go away. They also predict a backlash.
Left in the wings: the image of the Tampa Bay area, which is either claiming its Southern heritage or proclaiming white power, depending on who is speaking.
Alvin Mccray, whose Community Justice Forum sponsored the event held at the Alessi Woodstone Oven, said he was disappointed with the turnout. He had blanketed black churches with invitations and included four county commissioners. He had told activist Michelle Williams, who opposes the flag, she could invite as many people as she wanted. In the end, only 14 people showed up to listen to Mccray and six panelists.
Several of those who spoke for or against the flag, which also will be visible to drivers along Interstate 75, invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Marion Lambert, who bought a 0.3-acre property for the Confederate monument and led the project, lauded the civil rights movement and decried Jim Crow laws.
Williams said she respects the SCV for having established the monument legally, even though she will not rest until it and all other flags in the SCV's "Flags Across Florida" project are grounded for good.
But beyond an opening prayer for reconciliation by singer Belinda Womack, common ground quickly disappeared.
"If anything, this flag is a lightning rod and a catalyst for the debate," Lambert said. "And the debate is who we are as a people."
Connie Burton, a black community activist, warned of fierce opposition should the flag go up. "They have no idea of the hell they are going to unleash," she said.
When her time came to address the group, Burton turned to Lambert and two other speakers representing the SCV and said, "The flag you are attempting to raise — do it if you need to, do it if you must — paints a very nasty, dirty and ugly picture."
Willis K.C. Bowick, who heads the SunCoast African-American Chamber of Commerce but said he was representing only himself, suggested a possible compromise. Perhaps the SCV could fly its flag on selected days rather than every day.
Lambert rejected that proposal, saying that the flag represents the "Southern heritage community."
"I think that flag needs to fly," he said.
Bowick, 57, said he doesn't believe it's an accident that the flag will fly at the same time a Super Bowl is on its way to Tampa and a black man could be headed for the White House.
He said he might attend future events Mccray hopes to organize in hopes of a compromise, but the prospect doesn't excite him.
"I should be home watching baseball," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.