TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Whenever members of the Judah P. Benjamin Camp of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans don their grey wool uniforms for a demonstration or re-enactment, Al McCray is there among his brothers.
He marches in the parades and flies the Confederate flag. He speaks out against the notion that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of racism and defends "Southern heritage" causes.
Yet McCray is different from the rest of the camp.
While the other members are descendants of soldiers that fought for the south in the Civil War, McCray is an African-American "legionnaire" — his ancestors were slaves on plantations near his hometown of Manning, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia.
"I understand the true nature of the war, and slavery was not the primary issue," McCray said. "It was an issue of northern aggression and northern imperialism."
McCray knows many people don't understand his defense of the Confederate flag and Confederate States of America, particularly since the flag has become a political firecracker after nine black church members were slain last month in a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
Among those who question his stance, he said, are the 63-year-old's four adult children, as well as his parents. "My family is completely the opposite of me, no one supports my views or beliefs but we still get along," said McCray, a Tampa journalist and managing editor of TampaNewsAndTalk.com.
In his years attending Civil War conferences, reenactments and Sons of Confederate Veterans gatherings, McCray said, he has only encountered three to five other African Americans. Still, his involvement doesn't feel "weird or out of place at all," he said.
"We're truly a brotherhood," McCray said.
On his website, McCray covers the latest in Tampa politics and controversies and has interviewed political stalwarts ranging from strip club magnate Joe Redner to former governor Charlie Crist. He also writes articles like, "Has the NAACP lost its way in the woods again," and "The War Between the States WAS NOT about Slavery."
Abolishing slavery was little more than a war game for the north to create more rebellion and discord in the south and stop the states from maintaining their sovereignty, he said. World-wide, slavery was phasing out as the war began and would have done the same in 20 or 30 years under a Confederate States of America, McCray said.
"I've always felt that way growing up in the south, that linking the flag to slavery and racism was just another way to keep division between the races," McCray said. "I always wondered why Lincoln didn't free the slaves his first day in office if he felt so strongly about it."
McCray was once a member of the NAACP but left the group after it passed a resolution in 1991 calling the Confederate battle flag "an abhorrence to all Americans and decent people of this country, and indeed, the world and is an odious blight upon the universe."
He became involved in the Tampa chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans shortly after he moved to Tampa in 2000. He wrote an opinion article, published in The Tampa Tribune, decrying South Carolina's compromise with the NAACP to replace a large Confederate flag with a smaller version on the capitol grounds — the flag that was officially removed Friday. His views caught the attention of the Judah P. Benjamin Camp, and they extended an invitation.
Even though he doesn't have any direct ancestors that were soldiers in the Civil War — normally, a stringent requirement for membership — the camp allowed him to join based on his vast knowledge of Confederate history, and he immediately became a spokesman of sorts that "opened doors to more diversity," said Judah P. Benjamin Camp member Phil Walters.
"He's educated us on a lot of issues on the black community and opened doors for us, getting us on black radio stations and in good community conversations," said Walters, a Tampa alligator trapper. "He's the kind of guy that wants people to wonder why there's a black guy marching with the Confederate flag so they ask questions and learn the truth about our history. You don't see a lot of diversity in these southern groups ... but everyone and anyone is welcome. But if you're a skinhead or come in with a white robe over your face, we'll tell you to get lost."
The Sons of Confederate Veterans isn't the only club to which McCray holds membership. He is on the board of directors for the Tampa Tiger Bay Club and often socializes with the city's political movers and shakers.
"Some people are shocked when they see pictures of Al with the flag or think it's a little weird, but when you talk to the guy he's very nice and very knowledgeable," said Don Kruse, president and CEO of Beauty and Health Institute and a fellow Tiger Bay Club member who McCray has interviewed for his website . "Everybody knows Al, he's very well respected, and he believes wholeheartedly in the heritage of that flag."
McCray is "definitely not afraid" to wear his gray confederate uniform in the Town 'n' Country Veterans Day Parade Kruse helps direct, he said. Personally, Kruse said, he would like to see the flag retired to museum displays but has come to respect McCray's point of view.
"Prejudice is pre-judging people, and Al is a perfect example that you can't judge a book by its cover," Kruse said.
Despite the recent outcry over the Confederate battle flag and its symbolism, McCray said he is confident there are other black Americans that share his views. The confederacy was multicultural during the war, and so is the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he said.
"I'm in it for the cause and historical importance, not for color," McCray said.
Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, http://www.tampatrib.com