Battle over Confederate flag hits highways

Huge displays along interstates raise old debates over the history of war and slavery.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Divisive symbol: The Sons of Confederate Veterans recently hoisted the world's largest 'soldier's flag' in Tampa, Fla.
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Chip Witte doesn't consider himself a Rebel. He doesn't hang Dixie battle flags in his living room, nor does he wear one on the back of his leather jacket.

Yet when the Tampa motorcycle mechanic saw the world's largest Confederate battle flag unfurl above the intersection of I-75 and I-4 in June, he felt a jolt of solidarity with the lost cause and lost rights that he says the battle flag represents. "I think it's great that they're allowed to fly it," says Mr. Witte. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the highway intersection.]

Despite years of boycotts, schoolyard bans, and banishment from capitol domes, the Southern battle colors are flying, higher than ever.

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Indeed, the Tampa Confederate Veterans Memorial and its 139-foot flagpole features one of at least four giant "soldier's flags" flying over bumper-to-bumper interstates in Florida and Alabama. With more planned in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, and possibly South Carolina, the interstate show of force, experts say, highlights the potential backlash from banning nostalgic symbols from the public square.

Moreover, the giant flags are also the outward sign of a deeper struggle within the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a century-old organization historically more likely to hold battlefield reenactments than to stage political warfare.

What effect the flags will have on public perceptions and even tourism intensifies the issue as a political force here in the only part of the country to suffer the humiliation of total defeat.

"The battle flag "is a profound statement ... and the targets of our nerve-getting are the business community, the tourist community and the political community," says Marion Lambert, the Brandon, Fla., beekeeper who spearheaded the Tampa flag monument.

Unlike the flags that were taken down from the capitol domes in Columbia, S.C. and Tallahassee, Fla., these new auto dealer-sized flags – sewn in China – may be legally untouchable. Raised on private property, the Tampa flag was OK'd by county zoning officials and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's not going to go away," says Jim Farmer, a history professor at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. "There is a subculture within the white Southern population, of which the SCV is the most visible voice, that feels besieged by modern culture in general, and they identify the Old South and Confederacy as a way of life and a period of time before the siege began to really hit the South."

To Confederate sympathizers, opposition to the flag is misguided. They say the "soldier's flag" represents not slavery, but the valor of Southern men in their lost cause.

As proof of the flag's universality, SCV officials point to a tableau at the June 1 flag-raising ceremony in Tampa. As several older white men huffed trying to raise the 72-pound flag, two black men stepped in to finish the job.

"We have Indian, Hispanic, black, and white members of our camps, and if anyone espouses anything hateful or racewise, you're gone [from the SCV]," says group historian Robert Gates.

Flag opponents say the real offense is that Southern governors raised the flags during the Civil Rights era as a provocative gesture against attempts to desegregate Southern schools.

"I consider myself a Southern gentleman, but I just feel bringing this up now, it represents a painful and a hurtful time, and I don't think it's necessary to hurt people to make a point," says Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

Partly in response to the beleaguered battle flag, the SCV has indeed become more politically active. A contingent of members called "the lunatics," including Aryan Nation holdovers, have for the past six years vied for power against the old-guard "grannies," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which investigates hate groups.

Yet under the current leadership of former Southern Partisan editor Chris Sullivan, who is widely considered a moderate, the SCV can't be considered a hate group, the SPLC has found.

"I think this is very likely to come back to bite them in the behind," says Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC's Intelligence Project in Montgomery, Ala.

"I don't think seeing some gigantic Confederate flag convinces anyone that the Civil War was not about slavery and that the antebellum South was really a wonderful place where everybody got along," says Mr. Potok.

But there's some evidence that flag proponents have the wind at their back. An attempt last week to reenergize the flag boycott in South Carolina faltered at the NAACP, with one member concluding the effort had lost its steam. Moreover, the NCAA recently got flak from some newspapers for banning championship games in South Carolina and Mississippi, but not in Alabama, which also has Confederate regalia as part of its official symbols.

"A flag may be a simple piece of cloth, but it's much more powerful than that," says John Clark, a political science professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. "[And] if you start turning people away, you're talking about a substantial investment in the local economy that's going to disappear."

Still, it's not clear whether the flag is actually that sensitive a topic. The economic effect of NAACP and NCAA boycotts in South Carolina has been minimal, according to state officials.

More recently, a Florida newspaper poll revealed that few drivers found the Tampa flag offensive, which surprised many officials.

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