TAMPA — The Sons of Confederate Veterans say they will permanently install a giant Confederate flag near the junction of Interstates 4 and 75 to counter what they consider increasing slights to Southern heritage.
But the group, founded 112 years ago to protect all that is noble about the South, is itself racked by angry divisions.
Since the 1990s, clusters of Sons members have aligned themselves with "heritage groups" like the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens, both considered hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The law center says the Sons may have been taken over by extremists.
"We had this group that looked like it had really radicalized to the right," said the law center's Mark Potok. "But as we looked more closely, we realized that this was really a battle from within."
In response to such charges, the Sons' Florida commander in 2002 sent interracial pornography to a female researcher at the center. John Adams later apologized, but he remains with the organization.
Today, he is co-chairman of the effort to install Confederate flags across Florida, including the one in eastern Hillsborough.
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Experts say the divisions within the Sons vary between two extremes. On one side are the traditionalists, members who focus on cleaning up Confederate grave sites and conducting Civil War re-enactments.
On the other side are the so-called Lunatics, up to 2,000 members who deride traditionalists as "grannies'' and belong to camps named after notorious Southern figures such as John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James.
John Wilkes Booth members have been known to put pennies in urinals, making sure to leave the Lincoln side face-up. Other Lunatic groups have removed the U.S. flag from their halls and banned the Pledge of Allegiance, says Walter Hilderman, who several years ago created an anti-Lunatic group called Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"The problem is it's supposed to be a patriotic organization," says Hilderman, 59. "You are either that or you let guys in who want to secede."
Hilderman is hardly liberal. He laments the decline of traditional values, believes in flying the Confederate flag, and thinks anti-communist crusader Joseph McCarthy was on to something.
Which leads to an important point: The internal divisions within the Sons are often as much about style as substance.
All members extol what they consider the virtues of the Confederacy. All are offended by the banning of Confederate flags from state capitols, as happened in Tallahassee several years ago.
The divisions are over how to respond to them.
For airing his grievances against the Sons to the national media, Hilderman was expelled from the organization in 2004. Many of his supporters across five camps were suspended.
Good riddance, says Kirk Lyons, a lawyer who called Hilderman's group a "misdirected and ill-gotten group of losers." Lyons is the founder of the Southern Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit law firm that has filed numerous lawsuits to keep Confederate symbols visible.
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Lyons' own ties to white supremacists are well known, from defending their leaders in court to marrying the daughter of Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler.
While the Southern Legal Resource Center is not affiliated with Sons of Confederate Veterans, their missions overlap. "People are being unfairly attacked simply for trying to stick up for a symbol," said Lyons, 51. "Look at all the people kvetching about a private flag in Florida."
Questions remain about cross-membership in the Sons and other heritage groups, especially the League of the South. Former Sons "heritage defense" chief Roger McCredie, who now directs the Southern Legal Resource Center, estimated in 2002 that "several thousand" League members also belonged to the Sons. McCredie now says that was just a guess.
League of the South founder J. Michael Hill, a proponent of "European" cultural dominance, is as active as ever. In October, he met with Vermonters in a joint conference about secession. And in a 2008 speech, the former history professor exhorted his audience with a blend of populism, separatism and Christianity.
"Your life, your liberty and your property are in the crosshairs of an organized criminal conspiracy that seeks to take them from you,'' Hill warned.
Those kinds of affiliations cloud the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that still contains thousands of "your basic history buffs," said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Greensboro, N.C., restaurateur Gilbert Jones, who left the Sons a few years ago, is more blunt. "Those guys are in a state of denial about who is in the group," he said. "There's a wide variety, but the extremists tend to take charge."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.