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Dueling Lexington Parades Show Stark Political Divide

William Faulkner famously wrote that ‘The past is never dead. It's not even past.’  And nowhere is that more evident than in Lexington, Virginia.  A tale of two cities played out there this past weekend, as rival groups took to the streets to celebrate two very different holidays: Lee-Jackson Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has the story.

[Sound of bagpipes]

On the third weekend in January, for years, these bagpipes have trickled through Lexington’s downtown. A state holiday for more than a century, Virginia celebrates the birthdays of Civil War Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, both of whom are buried in Lexington. The city’s often called the “Shrine of the South.” But this year, there was a new sound in the streets.

MLK CROWD: Who is Lexington? We are Lexington. Whose community? Our community.

More than a thousand people braved the near freezing, rainy, January morning to hold Lexington’s first parade in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Saturday. It was organized by a group called CARE, the Community Anti-Racism Education initiative, which was launched in March after a series of Ku Klux Klan recruitment pamphlets were found on local lawns.

It struck a raw nerve in a city where Confederate flags are commonplace. TJ Tallie helped organize the parade. He teaches history at Washington and Lee University.

TJ TALLIE: I think that it’s been a series of tensions here in a town that is known for its Civil War heritage, and has every right to be proud of the fact that it’s a historic town and place. But also, where many of its citizens want to be an inclusive city that makes all people feel welcome.

Robin LeBlanc agrees. She’s lived in Lexington for nearly two decades and says she’s fed up with confederate celebrations, most of which are attended by people from out of state. And so CARE pre-empted the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Virginia Flaggers, and secured the city’s sole parade permit for Saturday.

ROBIN LEBLANC: So I know there are some local folks, who want to celebrate a war of 160 years ago, and a regime that had slaves. But most of us aren’t those people. And we were hiding out literally. But here we are today, we’re not hiding anymore.

LeBlanc coordinated the parade’s security and logistics. People gathered beforehand by the Randolph Street United Methodist Church. Old and young carried peace flags, Black Lives Matter posters, and signs that read, “Say no to hate.” LeBlanc took to her megaphone and reminded them that they were flying in the face of tradition, and that there may be people along the way who don’t approve. 

LEBLANC: This parade is a peaceful, family-oriented parade. That means we have an absolute rule of non-engagement. You don’t see hecklers, don’t look them in the eye, don’t show them your flag. The flags are for us. And your banners are for us. We don’t hear hecklers. And we do not speak to hecklers.

The parade lasted about an hour, with no hecklers. As parade goers marched downtown, the Virginia Flaggers hoisted a giant confederate battle flag about a mile away, outside a gun store. They later brought scores of flags to the Stonewall Jackson cemetery.

Barry Isenhour is the group’s spokesman.

BARRY ISENHOUR: What this flag and everything actually stands for. What it actually is. I mean, that is one of the things that people don’t realize. This is a Confederate battle flag, it was never government issued, if you will. And it stood for the soldier, i.e. the veteran, the Confederate veteran. They fought under this in battle, and it represents our veteran soldiers. Doesn’t represent anything else.

Lacking an official parade permit, about 150 people marched with the Virginia Flaggers down Main Street’s sidewalk, less than an hour after the King parade. Several protesters near the cemetery held signs that read, “Smash White Supremacy,” but otherwise, the march was uneventful, and ended with a gathering in a downtown park. This was B.C. Johnson’s first year coming, but he’s been to similar events throughout the country. He was the only black person in attendance.

B.C. JOHNSON: I kind of got tired of the flag debate, growing up in South Carolina. I just started doing some independent reading and we ended up learning the true meaning of the secession instead of what we were taught by Yankee-written federally-supported history books.

For Johnson, supporting the Confederate flag is not about racism. It’s not even about race. It’s about supporting the right to dissent. And honoring those who died to protect that right. Johnson recently discovered that his ancestors fought in the Civil War.

The next day, on Sunday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans held its 17th annual celebration of Lee and Jackson’s birthdays.

Local retired state police officer W.B. Wilmore spoke to the crowd of nearly 200. An unsuccessful candidate for Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors 10 years ago, Wilmore called attendees to action, pointing his finger at CARE.

W.B. WILMORE: We’re being invaded again. It’s 1864 all over again. And of course the invaders are a little more subtle this time, they’ve got money, they’ve got some brains, not many.

Wilmore listed a lengthy series of ways the city was changing, for the worse—suggestions to rename two local streets, Confederate Circle and Rebel Ridge, the removal of a Stonewall Jackson portrait from the local hospital, which bears Jackson’s name.

Local resident Brandon Dorsey agreed, saying that for all of CARE’s talk about inclusivity, they made the Sons of Confederate Veterans feel very unwelcome. Dorsey is a communication officer with the group’s local chapter.

BRANDON DORSEY: They knew what they were doing. It’s definitely hypocritical, and if they weren’t seeking confrontation, they would’ve chose another time, so when they come out and try to play innocent it’s not the case.

The group paraded down Main Street, solemnly marching as a handful of supporters waved from the sidewalks. 

The bitter irony, of course, is that Lee, Jackson, and King all believed the answer to our national woes lay in coming together, healing old wounds. And yet, here, in celebration of them, both sides walked away, divided.

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.