Confederate flag supporters rise up to defend embattled symbol

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Hundreds Rally for Confederate Flag

An eight-mile convoy of pickups, motorcycles and cars wound through a central Florida town on Sunday in a show of support for the Confederate flag, as a backlash against its banishment from public landmarks across the South picks up steam.

Horns blared and hundreds of the rebel flags fluttered as more than 1,500 vehicles and some 4,500 people turned out for the "Florida Southern Pride Ride" in Ocala, according to police estimates. Vehicles from states across the South and as far away as California participated.

"That flag has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people," said David Stone, 38, who organized the event. "It doesn't symbolize hate unless you think it's hate - and that's your problem, not mine."

Organizers announced the event as the South embarked on an emotional debate over the flag's symbolism in the aftermath of the massacre of nine blacks by a white gunman in a Charleston church last month. The suspect in the church shootings had posed with the flag in photos posted on a website.

In South Carolina, lawmakers moved quickly to take the flag down from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, a longstanding demand of those who see it as a divisive symbol of the South's pro-slavery legacy.

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Confederate flag supporters rise up to defend embattled symbol
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., Friday, July 10, 2015, ending its 54-year presence there. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
People cheer as an honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. The Confederate flag was lowered from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse to the cheers of thousands on Friday, ending its 54-year presence there and marking a stunning political reversal in a state where many thought the rebel banner would fly indefinitely. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol lowers the Confederate battle flag as it is removed from the Capitol grounds Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. The Confederate flag was lowered from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse to the cheers of thousands on Friday, ending its 54-year presence there and marking a stunning political reversal in a state where many thought the rebel banner would fly indefinitely. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
An honor guard member from the South Carolina Highway Patrol hands the Confederate battle flag that flew in front of the Statehouse to the curator of the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum after it was taken down Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley hugs Rev. Norvel Goff, interim pastor at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, before an honor guard from the South Carolina Highway Patrol removed the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds, Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 10: A crowd cheers after the Confederate 'Stars and Bars' flag was lowered from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds for the last time on July 10, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Republican Governor Nikki Haley presided over the event after signing historic legislation to remove the flag the day before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
A woman waves a sign as she waits for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from in front of the South Carolina Statehouse, Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law Thursday requiring the flag to be removed. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 10: A girl watches from a crowd to see the Confederate 'Stars and Bars' flag lowered from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds for the last time on July 10, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Republican Governor Nikki Haley presided over the event after signing historic legislation to remove the flag the day before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 10: A crowd celebrates after a South Carolina honor guard lowers the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds for the last time on July 10, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Republican Governor Nikki Haley presided over the event after signing the historic legislation to remove the flag the day before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., Friday, July 10, 2015, ending its 54-year presence there. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 10: A crowd cheers as a South Carolina honor guard lowers the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds on July 10, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Republican Governor Nikki Haley presided over the event after signing the historic legislation to remove the flag the day before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. The Confederate flag was lowered from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse to the cheers of thousands on Friday, ending its 54-year presence there and marking a stunning political reversal in a state where many thought the rebel banner would fly indefinitely. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 9: The Confederate battle flag flies on its last full day at the South Carolina state house July 9, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill removing the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 09: Confederate flag supporters stand outside the as 'Stars and Bars' flies in front of the South Carolina statehouse on its last evening on July 9, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds Friday morning. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 09: People hold the American flag as the Confederate 'Stars and Bars' flies in front of the South Carolina statehouse on its last evening on July 9, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds Friday morning. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 9: Supporters celebrate after South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signs a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds July 9, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Debate on the flag was reignited three weeks ago after the mass murder at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill into law as former South Carolina governors and officials look on Thursday, July 9, 2015, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. The law enables the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds more than 50 years after the rebel banner was raised to protest the civil rights movement. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 9: State Reps. John King (L) and Cezar McKnight celebrate after the House approved a senate bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds July 9, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Lawmakers debated for more than 13 hours before approving the bill early Thursday morning. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, SC - JULY 9: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signs a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds July 9, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Debate on the flag was reignited three weeks ago after the mass murder at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Roger Rees attends the opening night of 'The Real Thing' on Broadway at American Airlines Theatre on October 30, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
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Alabama and scores of municipalities have take similar steps since the June 17 massacre.

But the national push to pull the controversial icon from stores and public displays is being met with determined resistance in some corners of the United States.

Supporters such as those who drove through Ocala on Sunday insist the flag is a honorable symbol of regional pride, a mark of respect for Southern soldiers who died in the American Civil War.

In Ocala, the seat of Marion County, an administrator had ordered the Confederate flag's removal from a government complex. But last week county leaders overruled the order and the banner is again flying atop the building.

"It's just about heritage. I'm upset they want to remove a piece of history," said Jessica McRee, 29, an Ocala native and employee of a law enforcement agency who participated in Sunday's ride.

In Hurley, Virginia, the rebel flag is more visible than ever as residents show their support for keeping the local high school's logo, which features the Confederate flag waving from a saber.

'BACKLASH IS BEGINNING'

Mississippi, whose state flag incorporates the design of the Confederate banner, is divided. The city of Hattiesburg has removed all state flags from city buildings, but just three miles away, the town of Petal has voted to fly the state flag at all of its city buildings.

Mississippi Republican Governor Phil Bryant has refused to call a special legislative session to address the issue, resisting calls to do so from leading state officials. In a 2001 statewide referendum, Mississippians overwhelmingly endorsed keeping the current state flag's design.

"A backlash is beginning," said Ben Jones, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which represents 30,000 descendants of Confederate soldiers. "We are putting flags out. Everyone time one is taken down, we put five or six of them up."

Jones, a former Democratic congressman from Georgia who starred in the hit 1980s TV comedy series "The Dukes of Hazzard," said he has been selling out of the replicas for sale at his show-themed stores in Tennessee and Virginia. The show featured a stock car dubbed the General Lee with an image of the Confederate flag on its roof.

And North Carolina's Department of Motor Vehicles recently sold out of a series of specialty license plates featuring the Confederate flag, local media reported. It has ordered more of the plates, which may be discontinued in the future.

Not everyone in rural Ocala was in sympathy with the ride, which police said was peaceful.

Galina Abdelaziz, 18, a recent Ocala high school graduate, stood with three others protesting the flag at the beginning of the parade route.

"It's really discouraging to me to see this in my hometown," Abdelaziz said.

The terminus of the parade had been changed at the last minute to avoid a largely black neighborhood where residents opposed the event, according to Ocala Sergeant Robie Bonner.

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