BRANDON — They came from Riverview, Lakeland, Ocala, Zephyrhills. They wore boots and blue jeans, "Git-R-Done" hats and camouflage.
Their vehicles were emblazoned with Confederate rebel flags, and they roared across State Road 60 early Friday night in support of Southern heritage.
"It's about any flag," said William Pew, 38 of Bloomingdale, who helped organize the rally. "We're riding for what we're proud of: white, black, Spanish."
The June 17 massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., reignited the national debate over the Confederate battle flag, long considered a controversial symbol.
Authorities have charged 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, a white man, in the slayings of nine black people at a Bible study. Roof appeared in photos online holding a Confederate flag and burning an American flag. He purportedly wrote of fomenting racial violence.
Despite the renewed flag controversy, several people who rallied Friday night affirmed the right to express their beliefs, saying that times have changed enough for the flag to have new meaning.
"You can't take away someone's right to the flag," said Cathy McCann, 41, who made the drive from Lakeland, where she is a nurse at a rehab facility. "Hate is in the heart, not the fabric."
Tyler Boyd, another rally organizer from Riverview, pointed out how several flags carry difficult history.
"The U.S. flag was also flown under slavery," the 19-year-old said.
Before the riders left around 7 p.m. for downtown Tampa, they circled around a flatbed truck where organizers were speaking.
"Stay behind each other," Pew instructed the crowd. "You can play music, but let's not get stupid.
"We've got to kill everybody with … ?" he asked, pausing for an answer.
"Kindness," the crowd responded.
Throughout the evening, "it's all about heritage" was the cry among supporters.
Asked about that heritage, 15-year-old Devin Cossairt of Lakeland said it's about enjoying everyday life and taking things slow.
"There was slavery. There was hate," he said. "It's a couple of hundred years later, and we've changed. (The flag) has a whole new meaning."
"This isn't Tampa's flag," said Hunter Greene, a 19-year-old from Ocala. He was one of few blacks in the crowd. "This is the Confederate flag, which is for all the Southern states. I'm just the same as everybody here."
As the sun set, the trucks roared in a single file heading west on SR 60, where bystanders honked and exhaust fumes clogged the air.
From the front seat looking back at the long tail of cars, Pew was stunned. He said he started organizing the event Wednesday with two or three good friends — and didn't expect this turnout. He estimated that about 400 vehicles came for the ride.
"I can't believe there were no protestors," he said. "If this is such hatred, why were there no protestors?"
Contact Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @zackpeterson918.