In Hillsborough County, renewed debate over giant Confederate flag

The Confederate battle flag in Hillsborough is defended and condemned anew.
An honor guard fires a volley as re-enactors lift a giant Confederate battle flag during the dedication of Confederate Memorial Park at 10418 U.S. 92 in Tampa in April 2009.  Times (2009)
An honor guard fires a volley as re-enactors lift a giant Confederate battle flag during the dedication of Confederate Memorial Park at 10418 U.S. 92 in Tampa in April 2009. Times (2009)
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TAMPA — Seven years after it was first raised, the Confederate battle flag still dominates the highway skyline, an enormous streak of red towering over the palms along Interstate 75.

As hundreds of protesters in South Carolina call to remove the Confederate flag flown at the state's Capitol after nine black church members were slain last week in what authorities are calling a hate crime, local leaders are reflecting on one of Florida's own monuments to Dixie.

"Given what happened in South Carolina, it opens old wounds about the flag flying in Tampa," said Curtis Stokes, who was president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP when the flag was dedicated in 2009. "It's a symbol of oppression, it's a symbol of a divide in American history, and I still think it's wrong."

But others are saying it represents their heritage.

"It's a historical marker. It's a reminder to all of us who had ancestors in the war," said Bob Hatfield of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which oversees the flag site. He said he is upset that the flag has been "hijacked" as a symbol by racist groups.

Marion Lambert, another member of the group who helped lead the effort to put the flag near the I-75 and Interstate 4 junction, said it doesn't play a role in tragedies like the attack in Charleston.

"No more than drinking coffee in the morning, or eating bananas in the afternoon, or waking up has anything to do with it," Lambert said. "The Confederate flag is historic."

He used to own the land where the flag rests and has since donated it to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He called the flag "a catalyst for a mental movement."

"The reason we put that flag up is to start people thinking," Lambert said. "If people look at it as a divisive issue, then that's their own portrayal."

In the days since last week's shooting in a venerable Charleston, S.C., church, a white supremacist manifesto tied to murder suspect Dylann Roof has emerged, as has a picture of Roof holding a Confederate battle flag. Authorities say Roof, 21, sat in on a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, then shot and killed nine African-Americans.

Worshipers at the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa honored the victims on Sunday, reading their names and taking up a collection. Just a day earlier, the Rev. Thomas Scott had driven past the gigantic flag and was struck by its enormity.

"Given the history of it, I don't know why anybody would want to fly that flag," he said. "I think it sends a negative message about the citizens of Hillsborough County. It is very disgusting and very distasteful to see it flying."

Scott, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner and Tampa City Council member, said he recognizes that some honor the flag for its history, but said that its legacy is tied to hate and segregation.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner said the flag is "abhorrent" and "a jumble of slavery, segregation and oppression."

"It's a relic of the past, and it belongs where people put relics," she said. "If you went to Germany and saw a swastika on a flag, how would people react to that? It's the same reaction."

The flag remains a divisive reminder of exclusion and violence, said Jennifer Russell, executive director of nonprofit Community Tampa Bay, a group that seeks to end discrimination.

"I would really challenge the notion that we don't have other symbols of heritage that we could come up with," she said. "We can do better than that."

The flag's display, though legal, has long been contentious. Flown from a 139-foot pole, the battle flag measures 30 feet high and 60 feet long.

At its base is a small memorial park, "a tribute to the men who answered the call of duty in defense of our Southland," according to a marker.

Plans to erect the flag were met with worries from county commissioners, but the park is private property, and the flag is considered free speech. In the end, more than 1,000 supporters flocked to its dedication in 2009.

The flag was raised first in 2008 to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America. Since its dedication, it has flown almost full time.

About 30 percent of Americans have a negative reaction to the Confederate flag, versus 9 percent who view it positively, a 2011 Pew Research study found.

Among those opposed is County Commissioner Les Miller. When he thinks of the flag, he said, he remembers seeing it on cars in segregated 1950s Hillsborough County and in the hands of Ku Klux Klan members.

"I thought we had moved beyond that," he said. "I know what it meant then, and I know what it means now."

Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected], Jimmy Geurts at [email protected] and Shaker Samman at [email protected]

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