Sons of Confederate Veterans intend to march in Homestead
BY TANIA VALDEMORO
The local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said it intends to march at a Veterans Day parade in November. But organizers from the military affairs committee of the Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce are debating on whether to continue the 47-year-old event.
The committee's executive board will decide Thursday whether to support the chamber's recommendation to discontinue the parade after a controversy erupted over the one-time display of the Confederate battle flag last year.
For some, the flag symbolizes their heritage. For others, it is a symbol of racism and slavery.
The Miami-Dade chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is calling for a ban of the rebel flag. It plans to protest June 13 in Homestead and has threatened to boycott businesses belonging to the chamber of commerce.
But Confederate ancestors said they have a right to march with the flag and the chamber shouldn't be afraid to put on the parade. ''I think it's very sad they are considering canceling the parade,'' said Gregory Kalof, commander of the Miami camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. ``The chamber is responding to a threat of a boycott from the NAACP.''
After hearing of the group's intentions to march, Mary Finlan, the executive director of the chamber, replied: ``We would expect that.'' Last week, she said board members said they wanted to cancel the parade because they did not want veterans to be disrespected and the event to be marred by protests.
Debra Toomer, a spokeswoman for the local NAACP, said she couldn't comment on the Sons of Confederates planning to march at the Homestead Veterans Day parade. ''We have not heard officially that the Sons of Confederate plan to march,'' she said. ``We can't give you a reaction.''
In recent days, the NAACP has been tight-lipped about its plans, including a campaign to inform NASCAR and its sponsors about the flag's appearance in Homestead and a possible boycott of the NASCAR Nationwide Series Championship and Sprint Cup Series Championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. Toomer said NAACP President Bishop Victor Curry would discuss these issues at a press conference June 11 in front of Homestead City Hall.
Robert Hurst, public affairs officer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans Florida division, said there had been talk among the Confederate veterans about holding their own press conference this week. Members decided against it. ''We don't try to interfere with the NAACP,'' Hurst said. ``They have the right to do whatever they want to do. We have a First Amendment right of free speech.''
In an interview Tuesday, Brandon Hensler, spokesman for the ACLU of Florida, said no one has asked the ACLU to get involved in the dispute, although the organization is monitoring the executive board's decision and could play a role in the future. One organization that has waded into the conflict: The U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service, an impartial body whose purpose is to help communities resolve tension and conflict in matters over race, color or national origin. ''We are involved and we have personnel in Homestead,'' said Ryan Breitenbach, legal counsel for the Community Relations Service in Washington, D.C.
He declined to comment on the group's work, citing confidentiality agreements.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a national group that was formed in 1896. Open to male descendants of Confederate veterans, its purpose is to ''preserve the legacy of these heroes, so future generations can understand the motives that animated the southern cause,'' according to its website. Hurst said there are 50 to 55 camps or local chapters, totaling about 1,500 people, in Florida.
The Miami camp decided to march in the Homestead Veterans Day parade because a similar parade in Palm Beach County had been canceled, Kalof said. They had participated in that parade for at least four or five years without any protests or incidents, he said.
''We wanted to support the troops,'' Kalof added. ``We don't endorse slavery, segregation or white supremacy.''
In February, Kalof suggested that his group would march with the Stars and Bars flag instead of the rebel flag at this year's Veterans Day parade, but members of the now-dissolved Homestead/Florida City Human Relations Board rejected that idea, he said.
At the end of April, the Sons of Confederate Veterans installed the largest Confederate battle flag in the country -- 30 feet high and 50 feet long atop a 139-foot pole on private land near the junction of Interstate 75 and Interstate 4 in Tampa. The giant flag is part of the group's Flags Across Florida project that also includes a memorial for Confederate veterans, Kalof said. It also has erected rebel flags in Lake City and north of Tallahassee by the Georgia state line, Hurst said.
The Tampa flag prompted a mixed reaction among nearby business owners in Hillsborough County, who feared a backlash from blacks, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Kalof said there are plans to erect Confederate battle flags in South Florida; although, nothing is imminent because the costs are high and time is needed to raise money for the project.
''We are not a political organization. We are a historical group,'' he said.