Beneath an infamous rebel flag in east Tampa
By Thomas Becnel
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
TAMPA – Every day, Marcus Fowler rides a bike to his job at a furniture warehouse. Every day, he pedals along U.S. 92, a gritty industrial strip off Interstate 75.
The 139-foot flagpole, holding a 30- by 50-foot Confederate flag, sits on a tiny triangle of land overlooking I-75 and I-4 in Tampa.
Every day, the 48-year-old black man looks up at the huge Confederate flag that dominates the urban landscape.
"I notice it every day — every day," Fowler says. "I don’t like it; that’s my opinion. They say it’s their history, fine and dandy, but I say it’s a symbol of hate. Even Caucasian people would say that."
Not in this neighborhood.
In the body shops, junkyards and trailer parks near U.S. 92, it is hard to find a white person who objects to the Sons of Confederate Veterans memorial.
Casper Simmons works on motorcycle engines at Last Chance Cycles, where a "Don’t Tread On Me" flag hangs in the garage. He enjoys seeing the rebel flag wave overhead every day.
"Every morning, on my way to work, and every night, on my way home," says Simmons, 44. "I think it’s the greatest thing in the world. It’s honoring the people of the South. Black and white, doesn’t matter.
"Just because it was used by people as a racist symbol doesn’t mean that’s what it’s being used for today. It’s only a race thing if you want it to be a race thing."
The man behind the flag, a South Tampa welder and farmer named Marion Lambert, lives far from U.S. 92.
Lambert wanted a high-profile site overlooking I-4 and I-75. In 2004, he bought a tiny triangle of land next to the interstate. In 2008, the Confederate Veterans organization built a 139-foot flagpole and hung a 30- by 50-foot rebel flag.
The huge flag became famous — or infamous — as thousands of Florida motorists drove past daily. It became a national controversy, with critics and defenders arguing over free speech and racial sensitivity.
The controversy has subsided, but the flag still flies over East Tampa, home of everything from the Camp Knox Motel to Stein’s Auto Graveyard.
Next door is Accent Marine, where Ted and Maxine Lowden sell fishing boats. They have been on U.S. 92 for 20 years. The jovial couple marvel at the hoopla.
Ted jokes that he could have bought that land years ago and saved everybody a lot of trouble. Maxine remembers when Lambert first talked about plans for the property.
"He just told us it was going to be a veteran’s park; he didn’t say anything about a Confederate flag," she says. "I don’t like him, but that’s just his personality and my personality. It had nothing to do with the flag."
Rebel Chevy tattoo
The best view of the big rebel flag might be from the Fern Valley Trailer Park, where Tammy Williams flies an American flag outside her home. That does not mean she is against the Confederate symbol. She laughs and turns, like a beauty pageant contestant, to show a visitor the tattoo on her right calf.
It’s a rebel flag — a rebel flag with a Chevy car logo.
Williams, an unemployed 40-year-old Tampa native, used to work at the county jail. She enjoys her view of the big flag.
"It’s something different, something about the South," Williams says. "Dixie, rebellion, I don’t know."
This positive sentiment is shared by many along U.S. 92.
Jerry Southern, a 62-year-old native of North Carolina, sees the Confederate flag on walks to the Free Will Baptist Church.
"It’s symbolic to me — I’m a Southerner," he says with a grin. "If they took that down, they’d take away something from this area."
Ricky Kernon, a 33-year-old repo man, also lives near U.S. 92. Asked why he likes the flag, he says bluntly that he hates black people, using an offensive slur.
"I’m not gonna lie to you," Kernon says. "I’m a racist."
‘What do you think?’
Just west of I-75, U.S. 92 offers everything from the Iron Workers Union to the State Highway Baptist Church.
The old Citgo gas station advertises "Fresh chicken tenders, livers, gizzards and more."
After work at Taylor Rentals, Fred McGlon and Shelly Miley take cigarette breaks at a picnic table outside the Citgo. He’s black. She’s white. They don’t mind the rebel flag nearby.
"It’s not a racist thing," Miley says. "It’s just history."
McGlon shrugs. "It doesn’t bother me," he says. "It’s people’s choice."
Most black residents of the neighborhood disagree. They consider the Civil War symbol provocative and insensitive.
"What do you think I think?" asks Keith Johnson, a 25-year-old college student. "You know I don’t like it. I notice it all the time. You can’t help but notice it. I don’t think it should be there, but I guess I can’t do anything about it."
Lambert, the man who started the flag controversy, is a 62-year-old Pensacola native who lives on four acres in South Tampa. He keeps bees and raises chickens and cows, selling milk and honey.
Lambert is genial and soft-spoken. The answering machine on his telephone asks people to "Have a Dixie day."
He calls the flag a big success.
"It went overwhelmingly positively," Lambert says. "It’s an affirmation of our heritage."
He says he cannot imagine why black people would take offense. Asked about the Civil War ending slavery, he replies that, well, it was the period of Reconstruction after the war that led to Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South.
Lambert laughs at the idea that interstate construction or anything else might take down the great Confederate flag of Tampa.
"They’d have to buy the land from us, and we’d just find another place," he says. "We’d put up a taller pole and a bigger flag."
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