On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis voted with the majority of the House of Representatives to remove statues honoring Confederate figures from United States Capitol grounds.
In a statement, the Republican from Palm Harbor said he wants to see Confederate flags and memorials moved to museums, and believes “in the value of an ongoing dialogue on these issues.”
Bilirakis, who is running for an eighth term this year, is among the elected officials nationwide publicly reassessing the place of Confederate monuments and symbols amid the ongoing dialogue regarding systemic racism. While he has supported the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces, Bilirakis employs inside his office a Congressional aide with a background in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“It has pushed from its founding a white supremacist narrative of history that celebrates white men and distorts the truth,” Adam Domby, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, said of Sons of Confederate Veterans.
After Bob Hatfield, a former school principal and golf coach, began working as an aide for Bilirakis more than six years ago, he continued giving talks to community groups about the Civil War in his role as a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Since 2014, Hatfield has been paid $120,322 as Bilirakis’ aide, according to House of Representatives statements of disbursements.
Hatfield and Bilirakis declined interview requests this week about Hatfield’s involvement with the group. Hatfield replied only that he has “not been a member for several years” but declined to elaborate on why or when he left the group. He previously discussed his membership with the Sons of Confederate Veterans with the Tampa Bay Times as recently as 2015.
In a statement, Bilirakis applauded his aide, declining to answer further questions.
“I could not be more proud to have him on staff serving the constituents of Florida’s 12th congressional district, particularly those in impoverished communities in East Pasco,” Bilirakis said. “I don’t know anything about the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but know that Bob’s work to help provide federal assistance to minority communities is exemplary.”
The 124-year-old Sons of Confederate Veterans group is known mostly today as a staunch propagator of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which portrays the Confederacy’s cause as noble and inaccurately teaches that the war was fought over states’ rights rather than to protect slavery.
“We are a lineage society made up of male descendants of Confederate veterans, we know our own families, and the motivation for the Confederate soldiers, the vast majority of them, was in defense of their homes and families against an illegal and unconstitutional invasion by President (Abraham) Lincoln,” said David McAllister, who leads the local Judah P. Benjamin Camp.
According to Domby, author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, taking the narrative away from the Confederacy’s defense of slavery not only attempts to rewrite history, but it celebrates a version of the past that perpetuates racism in modern society.
“You have this false version of history that the Confederacy was for states rights; well, states rights were a key aspect to defending segregation as well,” Domby said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center does not categorize Sons of Confederate Veterans as a hate group. But it has documented a pattern of overlap between some group members and followers of official hate groups like the League of the South, a white supremacist group that advocates for a second Southern secession.
“Sons of Confederate Veterans have worked to present a benign social face for the organization,” said Howard Graves, senior research analyst with Southern Poverty Law Center. “But they represent an organized, generations-long attempt to whitewash the actual ambitions of the Confederacy, which were to maintain chattel slavery.”
The chapter Hatfield belonged to, the General Jubal A. Early Camp of Tampa, is responsible for maintaining the 30-foot by 60-foot Confederate flag in a small memorial park near the intersection of Interstates 4 and 75.
The Early camp took down its flag in May, after commentators on social media threatened to set it on fire. Camp Commander David King said plans for when the flag will fly again are “not for public disclosure.”
King added he has not spoken to Hatfield “in a couple of years.” Hatfield still appears on the camp’s website as the emcee for the 3rd National Flag Raising ceremony in 2013.
Domby said the fact the camp flies the 3rd National Flag of the Confederate States of America in its memorial park is significant. Like the 2nd National Flag of the Confederacy, the 3rd version features a large white space in the center with the Confederate battle flag in the upper left canton.
“The white on the flag they are flying is explicitly about evoking pride in the white race,” Domby said. “This is where radicalization comes about.”