Just over five months after the deadly Charlottesville protests in August, one hour away in Lexington, both Confederate and rainbow flags flew this weekend, as two different groups celebrated the Virginia state Lee-Jackson holiday, and the national Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. WMRA’s Faith Pinho has the story.
Confederate stars and bars rippled through Lexington on Saturday, as people in war regalia and period costumes marched in the yearly parade honoring Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
[MLK parade singing, chanting]
Yesterday, the streets again filled with marchers – these carrying a rainbow assortment of signs honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King and proclaiming justice, equality and peace for all.
This year, extra precaution was taken to ensure that both events happened peacefully. City council member Marilyn Alexander said that nobody wanted a repeat of what happened in Charlottesville.
MARILYN ALEXANDER: As soon as that event took place in Charlottesville, we immediately started the think tank about what if.
State police and forces from several surrounding localities joined Lexington police in swarming the streets over the weekend. Field commander Lt. Michael Frost said he spent hours creating contingency plans but, in the end, the weekend’s events went smoothly.
MICHAEL FROST: I think both parades went exceptionally well. There was no major hiccups. Everybody got along well and the resources that we had in reserve were not needed, so I think it went as well as it could actually go.
According to the organizers’ website, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other southern historical organizations have gathered every year since 2000 to commemorate the two generals buried in Lexington. These annual rallies are also in part a protest of a decision by Lexington city council in 2011 to ban the Confederate flag on city-owned property.
Barry Isenhour, spokesperson for the Virginia Flaggers group, said this was his eighth year coming to Lexington from Richmond.
BARRY ISENHOUR: That’s what we do, we come here to honor them because they were great civic leaders as well as military leaders, spiritual leaders. So we come here to honor them because we honor our American veterans.
Attendees on Lee-Jackson Day emphasized that the focus of their parade was history – to remember the generals for their contribution to the war. Tim McCurry from Morristown, Tennessee wore full Confederate gray uniform and carried a replica of the first Confederate national flag. He said he marches to keep the history and education of the Confederacy alive.
TIM McCURRY: I don’t associate with white supremacists or those that stand up for quote unquote the white race. That’s not my thing. It’s not what the Confederate veterans themselves would have stood for or would’ve believed in.
For others, the weekend offered an opportunity to take a stand for a southern identity. Creighton Lovelace, a pastor from North Carolina, spoke at the Lee-Jackson Day memorial service and urged his audience to stand up for a southern heritage that he said is being erased.
CREIGHTON LOVELACE: We are under ethnic cultural cleansing, is what we’re seeing. Either the south is writhing and screaming and hollering because either A, she is being reborn or B, she is on her deathbed dying. And I will not be quiet about it.
The Martin Luther King Day parade was created by the Lexington organization Community Anti-Racism Effort – or, CARE. The group started in 2016 as a grassroots response to Ku Klux Klan recruitment in the city. Robin LeBlanc, a founding member of CARE, said they marched for King – and for love.
ROBIN LEBLANC: I think this is his spirit right here, right? I do. and I think he would have been thrilled to see the diversity of the crowd.
Last year, CARE applied for a permit that allowed them to hold their parade at the same time that the Sons of Confederate Veterans parade usually takes place. This year, the city gave each group a permit to hold the parades on separate days.
Here’s another CARE founding member, history professor T. J. Tallie:
T.J. TALLIE: Last year was an extraordinarily important parade where we needed to sort of take up space that had been sort of historically taken away from us, and to really state this is what our community is. This is not about people coming from out of town and sort of making Lexington against its will about Lee-Jackson day. This is instead a ground-up, community-based event that says this is who we are and what our values are.
Still, participants in both the Lee-Jackson and Martin Luther King Day parades agreed that there is room for both groups to honor their heroes. Here’s Dami Lawal, a Washington and Lee University law student at the King parade.
DAMI LAWAL: I do think that the fact that both of them could happen shows the strength of America, right, that we are acceptable, we’re acceptable of things (sic), even if we don’t agree with it.
And Lillian McCurry, a Lee-Jackson Day marcher from Morristown, Tennessee. She said that if she didn’t have work, she would’ve stayed in town to march in the King parade, too.
LILLIAN MCCURRY: You can say Lee-Jackson Day and you can say Martin Luther King Day. It’s not a crime. You know, you don’t have to be on one side or the other.