HOMESTEAD – The year-long controversy over the display of the Confederate battle flag at publicly sanctioned events in Homestead divided the city.
Some say the issue also led to the ouster on Tuesday of four incumbent politicians who took no action on cries from some residents to ban the flag from the Veterans Day parade.
Now, the contentious flag fight may be over.
At their very first official meeting on Thursday, Nov. 4, the new slate of Homestead city council members voted unanimously to approve a permit application for the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization to hold the Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11.
The approval came after VFW parade organizers told commissioners that they barred Confederate States groups and their flags from the event.
“They [the former commissioners] could have done this a year ago, and maybe they would still be in office,” said Rosemary Fuller, who was one of the people who led the effort for the flag ban.
The development came days before the annual Veterans Day parade, and a day after the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) group announced that the Confederate battle flag had been banned from the event. The parade approval also came two days after an unprecedented voter revolt against most city hall incumbents.
Political observers say the long-simmering feud over the Confederate flag issue contributed to the ouster of Mayor Lynda Bell and three council members: Tim Nelson, Melvin McCormick and Nazy Sierra, in Tuesday's election.
Voters preferred former Council Member Steve Bateman over Bell as the mayor.
The Rev. Jimmie L. Williams III defeated McCormick. Newcomers Stephen Shelley and Elvis Maldonado also joined the dais, in place of Nelson and Sierra, respectively.
Councilwoman Judy Waldman, a frequent Bell critic, openly expressed opposition to the Confederate flag and sought city action to address it. She was the only incumbent to win re-election. She crushed her opponent, Angel Garrote, and is now the city’s vice mayor because, among the council members, she received the most votes for the post.
Officials with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) group, which is organizing the Nov. 11 parade, could not be reached for comment about the flag ban. The decision likely brings to an end the controversy which garnered the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which sought to resolve the matter through mediation, and the threat of an economic boycott from the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP.
"The NAACP commends the Veterans of Foreign Wars for their principled stance to hold a parade that truly honors Veterans of the United States military,’’ Brad Brown, first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP, wrote in an email to the newspaper on Thursday. “Veterans concerns are at the forefront of NAACP issues today and our Miami-Dade Branch's Veteran's Affairs Committee is working to make sure all veterans get the information and assistance they so well deserve. We are pleased to be able to concentrate on issues such as those without the distraction of having to address insults such as the public supported flying of the Confederate Flag.”
To some, the Confederate flag is a symbol of southern pride; to others, it is a reminder of slavery, lynching and racial mistreatment.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans issued the following statement on Wednesday:
“On Monday, November 2, 2009, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the oldest veterans group established in 1896 was notified by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post commander Joseph Stahl, that we would not be allowed to enter the Homestead Veteran’s Day parade,’’ Gregory Kalof, commander of the Miami-Dade based Sons of Confederate Veterans camp 471, wrote in a press release sent to the South Florida Times Wednesday morning. “He stated that there were still strong feelings against the participation of the SCV but did not specify if it were the participants, organizers, or outside organizations.’’
The flag controversy in Homestead first erupted after black citizens, including Rosemary Fuller and Pat Mellerson, objected to seeing Confederate soldiers with their battle flags marching in last year’s parade.
“I am a child of the civil rights movement. My parents and grandparents suffered through a lot of discrimination and abuse during those times and that flag was a direct reminder of those things,” Mellerson said. “It’s offensive and represents brutality and oppression to so many people.”
The groups opposing the flag called on the Military Affairs Committee of the Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce, which originally organized the event, and the city of Homestead, which provided in-kind support, to bar Confederate States groups and their memorabilia from future parades.
Homestead elected officials reacted by explaining that the city was not the parade organizer, and therefore had no authority to ban any organizations from the parade.
The chamber initially could not reach any compromise on the issue. But after months of wrangling and pressure from the NAACP and officials in neighboring Florida City, the Military Affairs Committee decided in September to cancel the parade altogether.
The local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Homestead took up the mantel, and applied for permits to organize this year’s parade.
Mellerson said the issue may now be resolved.
“The flag should be in a museum, in their homes, or on their personal cars,” Mellerson said. “I love parades. They are good for the community and I will have no problem attending.”
In the press release about the flag ban, Kalof tied the fate of the Confederate flag's display at the parade to that of Bell and the three other incumbents who lost their seats.
Observers on both sides of the issue say they believe the election was a referendum on the flag controversy.
“In our opinion, their standard of what has become a politically correct stance against the Confederate Battle Flag and all those that would support it are nothing short of political blackmail,’’ Kaloff wrote in his SCV press release. “The NAACP doesn’t have a record of Veteran’s support but instead only promotes its own agenda of erasing all aspects of Southern heritage. It has contrived a crisis for political ends: to remove Mayor Lynda Bell and council members from the Homestead City government. It seems very clear now that their threats have produced the desired results. For shame, for shame, on the voters and residents of Homestead by not voting or submitting to the sham that has been placed over the City.’’
Fuller, who lives just outside the city’s limits in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, agreed that the flag controversy is what galvanized voters. But she, said, other issues were also at play.
“This was never about Lynda Bell, and it wasn’t politically motivated. She [Lynda Bell] said that. Our focus was always on keeping those offensive flags and symbols from this community event,” she said. “They [council members] just blew it, and the voters spoke on Tuesday. If you go back and look at the council meetings, you will see where people who opposed the flag were demeaned and insulted.”
Fuller continued: “This is a good community and the people were just fed up, and it’s a refreshing day, and I do plan on going to the parade if they are banned.”
Kaloff said his Confederate organization would not challenge the VFW’s decision.
“We may attend the parade only as spectators. I'm not sure if it's too late to get into another parade but we are exploring that possibility,” he wrote in an email sent to the newspaper on Thursday, Nov 4.
When asked if the Sons of Confederate Veterans is considering any legal challenges to the ban, he responded, “No, there will be no legal steps taken against the VFW. We are a non-affiliated, non-political organization and would never sue another veteran’s organization just because of an error in human judgment.”
The Veterans Day parade in Homestead is a 47-year tradition that will now move forward.
“It looks as if it’s over, but we will still be watching,” Fuller said of the flag fight. “But this should be a lesson for everyone, particularly our elected officials, who should have respected everyone’s views.”