BRANDON — The Vietnam veterans gave out bead necklaces, the Veterans of Foreign Wars gave out candy, and the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans gave out Confederate battle flags, as they have always done.
In most respects, Brandon's Fourth of July parade, with its classic theme of "Red, White and Blue," was no different than it has ever been. More than 100 groups paraded down Parsons Avenue on Saturday in front of tens of thousands of people gathered for one of the largest Independence Day celebrations in the state. The parade has been a Brandon tradition for decades, and is run by the Community Roundtable, a local nonprofit.
But in the face of growing resistance to symbols of the Confederacy, sparked by the racism-fueled killing of nine black people in Charleston, S.C. last month, Confederate sympathizers chose to have a smaller presence at the parade this year. Forgoing their usual float, the group of roughly a dozen hard-core supporters packed into two cars, led by several men carrying flags of the Confederacy — the Bonnie Blue, the Stars and Bars — but not the battle flag.
"We usually have a lot more people, but we decided to tone it down a little bit this year," said Phil Walters, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and a professional alligator hunter.
Still, the group continued its tradition of handing out miniature rebel flags along the parade route.
"Do you want one?" Sons of Confederate Veterans member Jeff Wolverton asked a young woman. She shook her head. Definitely not. A man reached over her shoulder to take the flag, then turned to give it to his young son.
Walters said some Confederate supporters have received death threats. He said the public opposition is so much greater this year than in the past that quite a few members of his group decided not to march in the parade. Opponents who decry the flag as a symbol of racism, "simply misunderstand the flag," he said.
"Trying to censor part of our history and heritage is just wrong and it's not intellectually honest," he said. "What they're doing is judging our past according to today's standards."
Sweating heavily underneath his Confederate soldier costume, Jeff Roble, a Civil War re-enactor, said to him the battle flag is a symbol of protest against government overreach. Although he used to dress up as a Union soldier, he switched to the Confederate side "as soon as Barack Obama won re-election," he said.
Along the parade route, the battle flag was barely a topic of conversation. Military veterans shrugged their shoulders, acknowledging that while they didn't like to see the flag being waved, they had fought for everyone's right to expression, hadn't they?
"The rebel flag means more than just heritage — depending on your background, it's like waving a Nazi flag," said Jon Smith, 29. "But I would bet 80-90 percent of the people waving it today don't know what it means or who General Lee was."