Battle over Confederate flag hits highways
Huge displays along interstates raise old debates over the history of war and slavery.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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 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.