Virginia Town Divided Over New Martin Luther King Jr. Parade


For years, the weekend leading up to the observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has been overshadowed here by a celebration and a parade honoring two Confederate generals whose birthdays fall within days of the civil rights icon’s: Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

But this year, a group seeking to march in honor of King obtained the sole permit available on Saturday, the day that a Lee-Jackson parade is typically held.

After a presidential election that has left the country sharply divided and emotions raw, some people in the town feared the worst, with town officials warning of “unintended consequences” if the King parade went ahead. But on Saturday, both groups held peaceful observances.

“It did not feel like we were doing something that radical,” said one King parade organizer, Florentien Verhage, a professor of philosophy who teaches at Washington and Lee University.

Lee and Jackson are buried here in Lexington, a small city of 7,000 tucked among the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, near the border of West Virginia. For more than a decade, Confederacy enthusiasts have gathered on this January weekend to celebrate the generals’ birthdays and “flag” the city — a term they coined to describe standing along thoroughfares, some dressed in Civil War costume, waving Confederate battle flags.

The tradition is at odds with the beliefs of many residents of this predominantly liberal college town, home to Washington and Lee University as well as the Virginia Military Institute. Defenders of the battle flag regard it as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage. But critics view it as an emblem of bigotry, an especially sensitive topic after the conviction last month of Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who has been sentenced to death for a shooting in a Charleston, S.C., church that left nine black congregants dead.

This year, longstanding tensions in Lexington increased after Ku Klux Klan recruitment fliers appeared around town last spring, prompting a group of professors and faith leaders to form an advocacy group, the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative.

In working to establish a King parade, they encountered resistance from both battle flag supporters, who called them antagonistic for their choice of date, and flag opponents, including some lifelong African-American residents, who said the parade threatened to upset the delicate, unspoken agreements that had allowed black and white residents to coexist in relative peace despite the town’s history.

A walk around downtown gives a sense of what they mean. Marysue Forrest, 69, a white bookstore owner, said she had never felt racial tension in Lexington. She declared with pride that she was related “by ex-marriage” to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general. She did not say that he was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Ted DeLaney, a black professor of history at Washington and Lee, recalled having his tonsils removed inside Stonewall Jackson’s former home, which was for a time the city’s hospital. He said African-Americans in the town had long chosen to turn away from the painful parts of local history, rather than confront them head-on.

Part of that, he said, involved making peace with monuments and references to Lee and Jackson, which seem to exist on nearly every block. John Leland, a retired English professor who taught at Washington and Lee and the Virginia Military Institute, remembers walking into the Robert E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church for the first time.

“Where you think there’s going to be an altar, there’s Lee, waiting to rise up — like the second coming of the Confederacy,” he said.

Tensions had erupted before. In 2011, Mimi Elrod, the mayor then, was driven in a police car to a City Council meeting to avoid hundreds of battle flag advocates protesting outside, according to local reports. Ms. Elrod had spearheaded an ordinance that would prevent them from obtaining a permit to hang their flag on municipal light posts, as they had quietly done the previous year.

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Source: The New York Times | CAITLIN DICKERSON