Fly­ing in the face of op­po­nents

In Florida, Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans are stand­ing by their em­bat­tled flag

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske

TAMPA, Fla. — By the time Mar­ion Lam­bert ar­rived at the base of the mas­sive Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle f lag he helped erect within view of In­ter­state 75, a small crowd had gath­ered.

Billed as the na­tion’s largest Con­fed­er­ate f lag at 50 by 30 feet, the ban­ner flies from a 139-foot pole at the man­i­cured Con­fed­er­ate Me­mo­rial Park. In the crowd was 64-year-old Greg Wil­son, a first-time visi­tor from north­ern Florida who rec­og­nized Lam­bert and ap­proached with his fam­ily.

Wil­son, who had met Lam­bert at a Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans meet­ing years ear­lier, had do­nated money to help cre­ate the me­mo­rial. He wore a Con­fed­er­ate f lag ring, belt, hunt­ing cap and a T-shirt that read “It ain’t over.”

“I don’t know how it just hap­pened overnight,” Wil­son said of the back­lash against the flag, adding that he in­tended to keep selling f lags at lo­cal fes­ti­vals as a side­line. “I’m not go­ing to let them con­trol me.”

That’s pretty much the sen­ti­ment at the me­mo­rial, which in­cludes gran­ite plaques de­tail­ing episodes and fig­ures from the Con­fed­er­acy. Lam­bert and the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans built the park af­ter rais­ing $150,000 six years ago.

“It’s just a preser­va­tion of her­itage, of what the war was re­ally about,” said Lam­bert, 67.

“Why does it res­onate so strongly with us? Be­cause we know the history,” he said.

Public sen­ti­ment has turned against the Con­fed­er­ate f lag in the wake of the shoot­ing of nine African Amer­i­can church mem­bers in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, and the ar­rest of a self-de­scribed white su­prem­a­cist. Wal-Mart and other re­tail­ers have stopped selling Con­fed­er­ate mer­chan­dise. Of­fi­cials have called for the re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate f lags, me­mo­ri­als and mon­u­ments across the coun­try.

For Lam­bert, the flag still rep­re­sents a proud history, an era sym­bol­ized in that mo­ment in “Gone With the Wind” when Scar­lett O’Hara de­fi­antly grabs a hand­ful of earth and shouts, “I’ll never be hun­gry again!”

“It’s the emo­tional, gut­tural affin­ity one has, what’s cours­ing through your veins, the sweet hills of Alabama or Vir­ginia: your lin­eage,” Lam­bert said.

He wishes op­po­nents would come see the me­mo­rial be­fore dis­miss­ing the flag be­cause of the shooter’s rampage.

Florida — which many con­sider only nom­i­nally part of the South be­cause of all the trans­plants and snow­birds — be­longed to the Con­fed­er­acy, but re­tained fewer prom­i­nent Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols than other states in the Deep South.

The bat­tle f lag was re­moved from the Capi­tol in Tal­la­has­see in 2001 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Hills­bor­ough County, which in­cludes Tampa, re­moved Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols from its of­fi­cial seal three years later — over the ob­jec­tions of Lam­bert and his group.

Now U.S. Rep. Kathy Cas­tor, a Demo­crat who rep­re­sents the area, wants to re­move the f lag near I-75. “It just flies in the face of the val­ues we hold dear,” she said.

Natasha Good­ley, vice pres­i­dent of the Hills­bor­ough County NAACP, re­mem­bers hav­ing to drive past the f lag twice a day for work af­ter it was first erected.

“To see that ev­ery day, as big as it is: What is the pur­pose? Is it just to honor the sol­diers? Be­cause there’s other ways to honor them,” she said. “My heart says the pur­pose was to get a rise out of peo­ple like me.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buck­horn wants the flag down too. “If the gover­nors of Alabama and South Carolina and Mis­sis­sippi can agree that that f lag ’s time has come and gone, then I would think that some guy in cen­tral Florida could have that same re­ac­tion if he found it in his heart to do it,” he said. That’s not likely. Lam­bert calls him­self a “throw­back,” with his an- tique gold-framed spec­ta­cles, worn cham­bray shirt, tat­tered jeans and bot­tom lip full of snuff. He knows his 40-year-old farm, grand­fa­thered into a sub­ur­ban cor­ner of Tampa, is “an anachro­nism, a Twi­light Zone” be­decked in Con­fed­er­ate mem­o­ra­bilia.

A sign on his porch ad­vises cus­tomers they can pay for eggs, milk and but­ter by check or “gen­uine Con­fed­er­ate cash.” There’s a Robert E. Lee com­mem­o­ra­tive plate in­side, and re­frig­er­a­tor mag­nets of var­i­ous gen­er­als, along with one of Mammy, the maid in “Gone With the Wind.”

He does not con­sider him­self a racist. He con­demns slav­ery. A bat­tle f lag hangs over the milk­ing par­lor out­side, where one of the half a dozen cows is named Dixie.

“The cul­ture is some­thing that needs to be kept alive,” he said.

He didn’t take up the Con­fed­er­ate cause un­til 1991, af­ter the Na­tional Assn. for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple passed a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing the ban­ner on state f lags as “an odi­ous blight upon the uni­verse.”

He joined the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans — three of his an­ces­tors had served — and be­gan fight­ing for Con­fed­er­ate f lags, li­cense plates and other icons.

Lam­bert per­suaded Hills­bor­ough County com­mis­sion­ers to pro­claim April 1995 “South­ern Her­itage Preser­va­tion Month” and April 26 “Con­fed­er­ate Me­mo­rial Day.” But he said such vic­to­ries were rare.

“We got beat on that all the way down the line. The only time I didn’t get beat was when I went my own way,” he said. “We showed the county. That’s why this flag that went up on 75 is so glo­ri­ous: I’m tired of get­ting beat.”

In 2004, he re­searched plots of land for the f lag. He found a high-vis­i­bil­ity spot, bought it for $5,000 and ap­plied to county of­fi­cials for a

per­mit to build “a me­mo­rial to Amer­i­can vet­er­ans.”

“When they found out it was Con­fed­er­ate vet­er­ans, they were em­bar­rassed. They said I tricked them — and I did,” he said.

Sup­port­ers raised money by of­fer­ing to en­grave the names of com­pa­nies, donors and their an­ces­tors on Ge­or­gia gran­ite tablets at the base of the f lag for $100 apiece. More than 340 Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers are listed, in­clud­ing Lam­bert’s an­ces­tors. One is his name­sake, Mar­ion D. Lam­bert, who served in Ten­nessee un­der Gen. Nathan Bed­ford For­rest.

At the me­mo­rial, Lam­bert pointed out the name of an African Amer­i­can soldier for the Con­fed­er­acy, Louis Napoleon Nel­son, whose de­scen­dant be­longs to the Sons of the Con­fed­er­acy near Or­lando. He noted ad­ja­cent plaques honor­ing black, fe­male, Latino, Jewish and Na­tive Amer­i­can Con­fed­er­ates.

Frank Fron­tino, 51, an ele­men­tary school prin­ci­pal vis­it­ing from John­stown, Pa., pulled up with rel­a­tives in the park­ing lot and snapped a photo.

Up north, “you don’t see this,” he said, re­fer­ring to the history de­tailed on the plaques. “All we see there is the f lag — it stands for peo­ple who be­lieve in slav­ery.”

Another visi­tor, Holly He­bert, 32, of Tampa, said she thought it was “ridicu­lous” that Wal-Mart had stopped selling Con­fed­er­ate mer­chan­dise.

As He­bert’s three chil­dren asked about their an­ces­tors and snapped photos, Lam­bert looked over the grounds. He checked a cling­ing vine with white f low­ers. That’s Con­fed­er­ate jas­mine, he said, that was strug­gling to thrive.

Pho­tog raphs by Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske Los An­ge­les Times

“IT’S JUST a preser­va­tion of her­itage, of what the war was re­ally about,” Mar­ion Lam­bert says of Con­fed­er­ate Me­mo­rial Park, near In­ter­state 75 out­side Tampa. The mayor and oth­ers have called for the re­moval of the park’s mas­sive bat­tle f lag from its 139-foot pole.

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