TAMPA — While many people held barbecues and watched fireworks Saturday evening to celebrate the Fourth of July, about 200 descendants and supporters of Confederate soldiers gathered to honor their heritage in a different way.
They held a rally beneath the huge Confederate battle flag on U.S. 92, just off Interstate 75, to protest recent criticism of the symbol and calls to remove it from government buildings. The event was held at Confederate Memorial Park and was called together in just a few days, organizers said.
“This is a spontaneous expression of public affection for the flag,” said David McCallister, commander of the Judah P. Benjamin Camp, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The flag, which has drawn intense scrutiny since it was erected near the interchange of interstates 75 and 4 in 2008, has been thrust into the spotlight again following the massacre of nine black people in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month. Police said a 21-year-old man with a white supremacist background confessed to the killings.
The shooting led to a national decrying of the Confederate flag, which many have argued is a symbol of racism and treason.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has led marches to have the flag removed from the state house in South Carolina. The Hillsborough County Commission soon will discuss whether to remove a small battle flag from the lobby of the Frederick B. Karl County Center downtown. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn joined others in calling for removal of the large Confederate flag off U.S. 92.
But the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, the group that maintains the Tampa park and is dedicated to preserving the history of the Confederacy, does not see the “Stars and Bars” as racist or offensive, but as a symbol of Southern heritage.
The man who committed the Charleston shooting was a “hate monger,” said Phil Walters, first lieutenant commander and a co-founder of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “But we are going to defend our heritage and we’re not going to give it up.”
The shooter was a racist and a criminal, but that doesn’t mean everyone who wants to preserve the Confederate symbol feels the same way, Walters said.
“I think Martin Luther King fought against that mindset,” he said. “Don’t stereotype.”
The crowd of people who attended the rally packed into the small park east of Tampa, which besides a towering flag pole also has monuments to local men and women who served for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
They came from all across Central Florida — many waving their own Confederate flags — for the event. After the crowd said the Pledge of Allegiance, they saluted the Confederate flag and sang “Dixie,” the anthem of the Confederacy.
Some people in the crowd wore T-shirts identifying themselves as members of the “Dukes of Hillsborough,” a group that formed recently to protect the flag in Hillsborough County. The name came about after the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which featured a car dubbed the General Lee that was adorned with a painted Confederate flag, was removed from TV Land lineups.
Evelyn Arthur of Arcadia came with other members of the Order of the Confederate Rose, an organization of women dedicated to preserving Confederate heritage, to support the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and defend the flag. Her group also has been working to clean grave sites of Confederate veterans in her hometown.
“It’s not what many people portray is to be,” she said of the flag. “It’s a heritage thing, and we’re all proud of our heritage.”