HOMESTEAD – The NAACP and other civil rights groups have joined black Homestead residents in seeking to ban the Confederate flag and groups that support it from city-sanctioned festivities.
“That flag is flown to strike fear in people, and it’s no different than a swastika being displayed in front of Jews,’’ said Brad Brown, vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP.
The issue came to a head on Nov. 11 during the 2008 Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce parade, when organizers allowed Confederate army organizations to participate in Veterans Day ceremonies and display Confederate flags.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) marched in the parade. Some rode atop vehicles emblazoned with Confederate states’ banners; others walked with Confederate battle flags.
The demonstration outraged black residents.
City officials said they did not organize the parade. Parade organizers, who are linked to the local chamber of commerce, defended their right to display the flag.
“I’ve been going to the Veterans Day parades here for nearly 40 years, and for the first time to see Confederate Army soldiers marching among black people was shocking,” said Rosemary Fuller, a lifelong Homestead resident who chairs the city’s Human Relations Board.
She is also a member of the Miami-Dade County Equal Opportunity Board.
“It’s insulting, disrespectful and a slap in the face,” she said.
“I find it curious how they decided to allow this right after the country elected its first African-American president,” Brown said. “We will not let this die. We plan to take other actions, which I’m not prepared to disclose at this time.”
Symbol of pride or racial hatred?
Jerome Williams, who is black, is chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. He said the organization’s Military Affairs Committee made the decision to have the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the parade.
“They [the Military Affairs Committee] are members of the chamber, but they have a separate organizational structure and funding source,” Williams explained. “We at the chamber do not organize the parade. It was their decision, and the committee does not answer to us.”
Williams said he is aware of the controversies surrounding the flag, and he questions why they are only now being raised in Homestead.
“I think the Confederate soldiers have always been in the parade. I’ve seen them there,” he said. “So, why is it an issue this time? I understand the debate, but I’ve done my own research and realize there were many black people in the Confederacy.”
Jeffrey Wander is the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Committee, which organized the parade. He could not be reached about the controversy, but in a letter to the city’s Human Relations Board that Fuller chairs, he defended the decision to include Confederate organizations.
“The MAC [Military Affairs Committee] has been inclusive and has not discriminated nor censored any participants in the parade,” Wander wrote in a March 6 letter. “The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) were praised for their community work by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The Confederate Battle Flag has been usurped as a negative symbol by disreputable groups.”
Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan and other racist hate groups have incorporated the Confederate Battle Flag into their message.
Wander did not respond to messages left at the Chamber of Commerce about his letter, but it has drawn support from the SCV.
“My feeling is that the NAACP is opposed to anything that is not in their best interest and they are denying the descendants of black Confederate veterans the opportunity to honor their ancestors,” said Richard W. Lee, a deputy division commander in the SCV. “I am very happy to see that the board has not folded to pressure from outsiders.”
Civil rights leaders balked at allowing the groups to participate in future events.
“We intend to have this struck down,” vowed the Rev. Richard Dunn, President of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE). “There needs to be an outpouring of support to rain down on this situation. We intend to make it a priority, because this is a blatant sign of disrespect.”
Over the years, civil rights organizations nationwide have waged countless struggles against the display of the Confederate flag on public property. Opponents see it as a symbol of hatred, slavery and lynching, vestiges of the old South that depended on slavery as an economic engine. Supporters view it as recognition of their southern heritage and a symbol of pride.
In 1962, for example, the all-white South Carolina state Legislature voted to place the Confederate battle flag atop the state capitol building. In the following decades, as other states removed the flags amid increasing controversy, South Carolina refused to do so. The refusal prompted the NAACP in 1999 to organize a national economic boycott against the state.
A year later, lawmakers there reached a compromise to relocate the flag next to a monument to Confederate soldiers, but still on the capitol grounds. The NAACP said this was not acceptable, and the boycott remains in effect today.
Lessons from history
Fuller, 59, the Human Relations Board chair, is a member of South Florida’s pioneering Mizell family. Family members have co-written famous Motown songs, started some of black South Florida's earliest schools and businesses, and assisted singer Stevie Wonder’s successful campaign to establish Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
Fuller is also a retired principal in the Miami-Dade School system. She has seen her share of racism while growing up and as an adult. In the 1970s, when she and her husband, Robert, were getting their home built on the city’s western outskirts, someone burned a cross on the site and otherwise vandalized it, she said.
Signs left at the site after the vandalism said, “Go back to Africa.”
Nearly a decade later, the family’s front windows were shattered by gunshots fired into their home. There have been other incidents. No one was injured in any of them. FBI investigations have never yielded any suspects.
Fuller said it’s understandable why people dressed in Confederate army uniforms, displaying Confederate flags, caught many parade attendees off guard last year.
“I thought this couldn’t be happening. We had no prior warning or notice, because if we did, I’m sure many people would not have participated,” she said. “It’s a good thing everyone remained calm.”
The Human Relations Board has held several meetings on the subject. Board members even sent letters to Homestead city officials, objecting to the participation of Confederate organizations and their events.
None of the seven Homestead city officials, including Councilman Melvin McCormick, the lone black member on the council, responded to questions from the South Florida Times.
But in a Dec. 29, 2008 sternly worded response letter to Fuller, Homestead Mayor Lynda Bell said the city played no role in organizing the parade.
“The accusations you made regarding the City, the Council, and me were inflammatory and unfair. I am particularly disturbed by the fact that you knowingly identified the City as the parade organizer when at a public meeting Laurin Yoder [a city staffer] made it clear that the parade was organized by the Chamber’s Military Affairs Committee,” Bell wrote.
Fuller said that while the city might not organize the event, it is a member of the chamber, and the city approves the parade’s standards. Additionally, she said, the city provides in-kind and logistical support, and issues permits for the parade.
“For them to march directly in front of the mayor and city council members who were smiling and waving is an insult,” Fuller said. “The city provides different types of support for the parade, and the elected officials ride in the floats, and we don’t think it’s right for the city to embrace the centuries of oppression and violence the flag represents.”
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Rosemary Fuller
To read the full text of the letters from the mayor and chamber of commerce, CLICK HERE .