tampabay.com

Irony of honors evokes a protest

Robert E. Lee and a black community volunteer are lauded in Hillsborough.

By BILL VARIAN
Published January 19, 2007


TAMPA - Hillsborough County commissioners proclaimed Thursday the bicentennial birthday of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee.

Then they officially commended James A. Hammond, a longtime community activist who is African-American and who recently had a soon-to-open elementary school named after him.

Lawyer Clinton Paris, who was in the audience to witness Hammond's recognition, was flabbergasted. So he signed a speaker slip and told commissioners so.

"It is absolutely appalling that this County Commission repeatedly talks about its progress, its ability to be inclusive and to move Hillsborough County forward," Paris said. "And we stop and we recognize somebody who, frankly, committed treason, somebody who would ensure that I wouldn't have an opportunity like this to stand before you."

Paris noted the presence, too, of County Attorney Renee Lee and Commissioner Kevin White, both of whom are black. Had the Confederacy prevailed, he said, neither would be so employed.

He said afterward that there was symbolism in the commission's decision to recognize Robert E. Lee first. And he likened the recognition to honoring Japanese military leaders for a crafty invasion of Pearl Harbor.

Commissioners didn't react to his comments. All seven commissioners - including Kevin White, who had asked for the commendation of Hammond - signed the proclamation.

White said afterward he thought the timing of the two honors peculiar but he didn't have strong feelings about it. Renee Lee offered, "I think there's some merit in Mr. Paris' statement."

Commission Chairman Jim Norman, who asked for the proclamation on behalf of Robert E. Lee and read it, left County Center after the meeting and didn't return a phone message that included the topic.

Commissioners have issued similar proclamations in the past on behalf of groups that honor the Confederate army, with an occasional board member objecting. This one was requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Daughters of the Confederacy.

Dean Leferink, a Pasco County High School social studies teacher who addressed the board in favor of the proclamation, said afterward that no offense should be taken by the pairing of the two honors. He said history shows Lee abhorred slavery, was a champion of the Constitution and a man of honor.

His legacy is misrepresented because the prevailing side in war gets to write the history books, he said.

"I mean no offense to this guy," Leferink said. "I'm convinced I will never convince this gentleman otherwise. But I'm also convinced he's never done any research on Robert E. Lee."

Hammond, 77, was more circumspect than Paris. He has spent decades as a champion of education and as a volunteer for many community service groups.

"I can understand his comments about his feelings to the commission," he said of Paris. "But basically I was very pleased to be honored by the commission. And nothing is going to rain on my parade."