Flying in the face of opponents
In Florida, Sons of Confederate Veterans are standing by their embattled flag
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.
“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.