TAMPA — A group of nearly 100 people stretched out their arms on the nation's Independence Day, saluting the Confederate flag waving above them.
"Happy Fourth of July," shouted Phil Walters, a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans. "Ya'll like this banner?"
The rally on Saturday evening, beneath a huge Confederate flag on U.S. 92 just west of Interstate 75, united supporters from across the state to express their anger at attempts to remove Confederate flags and monuments. They hoped to send a message that the Civil War was not based on slavery, and that the Confederate Flag was not a symbol of racism, but a reminder of their heritage.
The Confederate flag has been the subject of national controversy after the June 17 massacre of nine black people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The white man charged with the murders, 21-year old Dylann Storm Roof, appeared in photos online holding a Confederate flag.
The crowd at the rally sang along to the song Dixie, waving Confederate, American and "Don't Tread on Me" flags. They wore leather jackets, camouflage hats, bedazzled Confederate flag vests and shirts with the words "heritage not hate."
One man donned a Confederate flag tattoo on his arm. A couple of female members of the Order of the Confederate Rose wore floor-length, hoop-skirt dresses in the style of the Civil War era.
Walters gestured toward the engraved wall of names surrounding the flagpole behind him at the Confederate Memorial Park. The Civil War monument listed Confederate veterans of diverse backgrounds, Walters said, including blacks, Hispanics, Jews and American Indians.
He said the NAACP and national and local politicians should not have the right to define what the flag means to this nation.
"If you're embarrassed by the people you're elected to represent, then I suggest you go find another job," Walters said. "Pushing a redneck Southerner into the closet is not a good idea."
Mike Herring, another member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the nation should not judge the flag based simply on its recent association with the suspect in the South Carolina shooting.
"If he had taken a picture with a Bible instead of with the Confederate flag, I wonder how this would have played out," Herring said.
Henry Russ, a 72-year-old member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, drove 240 miles from his home in Jacksonville to attend the rally. Russ, a retired Navy chief warrant officer, said he supports the flag to honor his great-great-grandfather, who was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War.
He compared politicians' attempts to remove Confederate war memorials to Hitler destroying books and records of Germany's history.
"It's not about slavery," Russ said. "All this stuff about slavery is a lie."
William Pew, one of the event's organizers, led an earlier rally Saturday in Bloomingdale that was attended by almost 200 people, he said. Pew is launching a new local nonprofit called the Dukes of Hillsborough to promote awareness of Southern heritage. At Saturday's rally, Walters presented Pew with a charter for the group.
Pew said the organization is planning a clothing and food drive on July 15 in hopes of shedding positive light on the group by volunteering in the community. On July 13, Pew said, supporters of the Confederate flag plan to go to local courthouses to urge politicians to let the flags and monuments continue to remain on public display.
Walters urged the protesters to continue to speak up for their right to display the Confederate flag in honor of their family and their heritage.
"This flag is not going away," Walters said to a cheering crowd. "I'm not going away. Are you?"
Contact Samantha Schmidt at (813) 435-7308 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @schmidtsam7.