Confederate groups boldly waved dozens of battle flags during Friday night’s Christmas parade in downtown Roanoke — a move protested by Roanoke NAACP members and representatives from Roanoke’s Democratic Committee.
The parade, dubbed Haley Toyota’s City of Roanoke Christmas Parade, was organized by Downtown Roanoke Inc. under contract with the city. Jaime Clark, spokeswoman for the DRI, said that the number of parade entrants is supposed to be capped at 100 and was at capacity if not above it Friday morning.
Families packed sidewalks along the parade route to watch participants twirl flaming batons and listen to vibrant brass-band versions of holiday favorites during the annual celebration. Children flocked to candy throwers and others handing out holiday treats throughout the procession, which headed north down Jefferson Street from Elm Avenue and continued east along Campbell Avenue.
About 30 minutes after the parade began, the Virginia Society Order of the Confederate Rose headed a lengthy band of Confederate-themed organizations comprising mostly white members. The procession also included the Sons of Confederate Veterans 28th Virginia Infantry Camp and the Bedford Rifle Grays.
H. K. Edgerton, dressed as a Confederate soldier, enthusiastically waved a large battle flag to scattered applause near a group of about 20 NAACP and Democratic Committee members huddled behind the NAACP’s banner as he passed. Edgerton identifies himself as a “black Confederate activist” and has previously traveled from Asheville, North Carolina, to demonstrate at events where the battle flag is at issue, according to previous articles.
As the Confederate organization members marched along the parade route, many offered hand-held versions of the battle flag to onlookers. Lisa Dinkel, a Roanoke County woman who came to watch a parade, ran out into the procession to grab one for her daughter. Dinkel said she was excited to see the group’s continued use of the flags despite the protests.
“It’s because of what’s being said these days,” Dinkel said. “They’re saying the flag is racist. It’s not.”
Marilyn Stockton, a Roanoke resident who came out to watch her son perform in the Lucy Addison Middle School Bulldog Band, said that while the Confederate groups’ displays were more involved this year, their participation didn’t seem out of place.
“They’re out here every year,” Stockton said.
Last year, the Sons of Confederate Veterans had three participants in the parade, according to 28th Infantry Camp commander Mark Craig. He said media coverage of the battle flag’s public spaces caused a “stir” among supporters and emboldened many to come to the event.
Craig says the flag is based on St. Andrew’s Cross and is a religious symbol, as well as a symbol of Southern heritage. The battle flag is one of many flag designs, including Scotland’s flag, that incorporate St. Andrew’s Cross.
“I have to agree that the Ku Klux Klan used that flag inappropriately,” Craig said. “But we’re not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings. We’re trying to honor our culture and our ancestors.”
Late Wednesday, Roanoke’s Democratic Committee announced in email and on its Facebook page that its executive committee voted unanimously to pull out of the parade.
“We regret not being able to participate, but hope that it will be determined that while groups should be free to participate in city events such as this, the behavior of the participants is open to regulation,” the Facebook post reads.
A number of city council members also said this week that they believe the flag has no place in the parade, but city leaders and DRI say that because the parade is a government event, First Amendment free speech protections bar them from banning an organization or a flag from the parade.
Roanoke NAACP leader Brenda Hale said Wednesday that the battle flag evokes historical discrimination against the African American community and should be banned from the parade. She advocated that city leaders follow the example of Natchitoches, Louisiana’s mayor, who announced that the Sons of Confederate Veterans would not be allowed to carry the battle flag in that city’s Christmas parade in November. That city’s chapter has announced plans to sue Natchitoches, according to Louisiana-based TV station KSLA News.
“Is it a First Amendment right to have the Nazi symbol in a parade?” Hale said. “I’m sure that there would be an outcry from the Jewish community. I’m sure they would not want the KKK to be burning the cross in the parade.”
In 1977, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie that the National Socialist Party could not be prohibited from marching with Nazi paraphernalia through a city with a large Jewish population. Some of the town’s residents were survivors of the Holocaust.
Jaime Clark, spokeswoman for DRI, said Friday morning that the merchant’s organization was aware of both protests. As of Friday morning, the Democrats were the only group to withdraw from the parade over the flag.