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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 / August 4, 2008

Divisive symbol: The Sons of Confederate Veterans recently hoisted the world's largest 'soldier's flag' in Tampa, Fla.

Courtesy of Don Geary



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.

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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.

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.