LEXINGTON — Waving rainbow flags and holding up placards promoting diversity, more than 500 people marched through downtown Lexington Saturday — commandeering a parade route that in the past was marked by Confederate flags.
“No hate! No fear!” they chanted. “Everyone is welcome here!”
It was a Martin Luther King Jr. parade, a banner at the head of the procession proclaimed. But for many participants, the event was just as notable for what it was not: The usual parade, held this time every year in Lexington, that celebrated two Confederate generals and the flag they fought for.
“It was a bit overwhelming, just to see so many people waving the Confederate flag,” Adrianne Williams said, recalling her reaction the first time she witnessed the Lee-Jackson Day parade winding through town.
Williams, a black law school student at Washington and Lee University, called the flag “a symbol of hate that I didn’t want to see.”
This time, an organization called the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative seized the day Saturday by obtaining a city parade permit well before the sponsors of the Lee-Jackson event submitted their application. Lexington allows just one parade a day, so CARE effectively displaced a march that has been held by the Sons of Confederate Veterans for more than a decade.
And this time, Williams joined the parade.
“It seems like there are more people for diversity and equality in Lexington,” she said of the large turnout Saturday.
The parade was the first in the city of about 7,000 to honor Martin Luther King Jr., for whom a federal holiday will be held on Monday. In Virginia, a second holiday on the Friday of the same weekend commemorates Civil War Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Despite their numbers, the CARE marchers did not succeed in removing the Confederate flag from Lexington for the weekend.
The Stonewall Brigade Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans plans to hold its parade at 3 p.m. Sunday.
And members of The Virginia Flaggers, a group formed to defend the flag after it came under increased attack from those who say it stands for racism, showed up in force Saturday.
While the CARE parade was in progress, the group erected a massive Confederate flag on Midland Trail just outside of city limits — the fourth such display in recent years to protest decisions by the city council and Washington and Lee University to restrict displays of the battle flag.
About 150 members of the flaggers group and supporting organizations held a ceremony beneath a statue of Stonewall Jackson that stands at the site of his grave off Main Street. They then took to the streets of downtown, waving their flags at passing pedestrians and motorists.
The possibility of a confrontation seemed to be on the minds of both parade organizers and the many police officers who stood on alert throughout downtown.
Before the CARE parade started at 10 a.m., logistics coordinator Robin LeBlanc used a bull horn to caution the marchers not to engage with any counter-protesters they might encounter.
“Don’t look them in the eye,” LeBlanc said. “Don’t show them your flag. The flags are for us.”
But for the most part, the two contingents stayed clear of one another.
“I was so glad when I turned the corner and saw that the street was clear,” said Tammy Dunn, who watched the procession of CARE marchers, longer than a city block, make its way through downtown. The marchers sang hymns such as “We Shall Overcome” and held up signs that extolled peace, love and diversity.
Although the flaggers had encouraged supporters from across the country to make a pilgrimage to Lexington on Saturday, spokesman Barry Isenhour said the intent was never to interfere with the CARE parade.
“We don’t care,” he said. “If they want to march, have fun.”
The people who gathered at Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery were more interested in honoring the memory of two Civil War generals and the men who fought for them, Isenhour said. Some in attendance found it ironic that they and their flags were not welcomed by CARE, which preached a message of inclusion.
“We think it’s a little bit silly, all the political correctness that is going on,” said Maria Bakker, who traveled with her husband Dan from across the state to support the flaggers.
Late last year, after CARE displaced the Sons of Confederate Veterans by being the first to claim a parade permit, the Virginia Flaggers applied for a permit to march on Martin Luther King Day. They withdrew those plans after CARE turned down an offer to switch parade dates.
Although the flaggers lacked a permit for Saturday, they were allowed to assemble on sidewalks — sometimes stopping traffic and turning heads with their fusillade of Confederate flags flapping in the breeze.
The way CARE marcher Bob Capito saw it, such displays — along with the massive Confederate flag that went up on private land Saturday — were the cost of the city council’s decision in 2011 to allow only city, state and national flags to be flown from public light poles.
In an unsuccessful lawsuit filed in federal court, the Sons of Confederate Veterans claimed that decision violated their First Amendment right to display the South’s battle flag on the poles.
“The city of Lexington took a stand, and we’re paying the price,” Capito said. “We’re paying the price of the city of Lexington’s stand for equality for all of our citizens.”
Holding a rainbow flag as he waited for the parade to begin, Capito said he was eager to get started.
“I think it’s important to show solidarity with progressive people in our nation and in our town,” he said.
Although the CARE parade generally followed the route that Lee-Jackson marchers have taken in the past, there was one significant detour. Rather than start at the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, the parade began and ended at the Randolph Street United Methodist Church, which has a historically black congregation.
Rev. Reginald Early of the church, who helped lead the parade, said afterward that he was gratified to see so many people take part.
“It looks like this is something the city has been waiting for for a long time,” he said.
“I think Dr. King would be pleased.”