Raining on the Parades: A Community Division Overblown

Raining on the Parades: A Community Division Overblown

By Ben Whedon '18

Last year, the citizens of Lexington were shocked by the distribution of white-supremacist informational pamphlets by individuals affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. A testament to the values of the community we hold dear, local officials were quick to denounce the leaflets and their distributors. The outcry culminated in the formation of the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative or CARE. Comprised mostly of University professors and students, the group sought to raise awareness about issues of discrimination in Lexington.            

            Over the year, the organization grew stronger, attracting more members and support from around the community. Emboldened by their early successes, the group resolved to sponsor a parade for the birthday of the very Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a previously unseen occurrence on main street. This plan would soon face a roadblock in the form of the annual Lee-Jackson Day festivities sponsored by the Son of Confederate Veterans.

            The internment of both Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan Jackson in Lexington has fostered a thriving local veneration of the state holiday. For decades now, the local SCV chapter has organized the weekend-long events which typically include demonstrations in town, history lectures, and a parade down Main street. Historically, this parade has been held on the Saturday following Lee-Jackson Day with the official holiday set on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The birthdays of all three figures occur within the span of a week which gives rise to the unfortunate scheduling conflict. Rev. King was born on January 15th while Generals Lee and Jackson were born on the 19th and 21st respectively.

            Aware that the Lee-Jackson Day parade would occur on its usual Saturday, the CARE leaders sought to displace the local demonstrations by petitioning the city council to award the parade slot to them in advance before the SCV officially claimed its traditional booking. The group found its backing in the form of the then-sitting Lexington Mayor, Mimi Elrod, wife of the late former President of W&L. With her support, the CARE leaders were able to successfully secure the Saturday parade slot, displacing the longstanding SCV event. Well aware of the likely conflicts with Lee-Jackson Day, the CARE officials had ample time to devise an alternative plan be it choosing a different day (MLK day might be nice), negotiating for an additional parade slot, or some other form of compromise. Rather, the decision to stage the MLK parade on Saturday in the place the old Confederate one was deliberate and made with symbolic intentions.

            The headlines alone would have sent a strong statement as a southern town shed its rebel heritage to embrace a celebration of tolerance and diversity. It certainly would have fit well with the modern narrative and given the CARE organization a tremendous PR boost. Sadly, it simply wasn’t the case. The local community remained largely divided on the subject. When Academic activists work to change a community, it is rarely done in a way that encourages bi-partisan agreement to work together for common good. This instance was no different. A group of activists from W&L, in conjunction with a city government closely linked to the University, worked together in an effort to eliminate an “offensive” custom from society and replace it with a more acceptable one.

            Don’t misunderstand me. I’m quite thrilled that Lexington at last made a sincere effort to recognize the value of Rev. King’s message to the community. Considering Lexington’s involvement in the Civil War and the institutions of the Jim Crow South, Rev. King’s message could go a long way towards bringing the various groups of this city together. I merely assert that the CARE leaders had an ulterior, if secondary, motive in securing the same parade slot traditionally held by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This might seem an unwarranted or even unfounded accusation if it weren’t for the developments that followed.

            Public announcements of the new parade included several references to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans organization as “neo-Confederate,” with some even going as far as to label them as a “hate group.” The SCV is neither. It neither advocates for the secession of the Southern States, nor for discrimination of any kind. It is a historical society dedicated to preserving the heritage of a small part of America’s diverse history. Prompted by these accusations, the local SCV chapter issued a statement requesting to meet with the leaders of CARE to discuss the dispute. The press release highlighted the efforts of the SCV to promote the contributions of black soldiers to the Confederate cause and even offers to join CARE in their efforts to denounce racial hatred and bigotry. The full statement issued by the Sons of Confederate Veterans leadership can be found here.

            However, no meeting between the two parties ever took place, with the CARE leaders declining even to address the friendly overtures made by the local SCV chapter. It seems odd that an activist group with the aim of fostering community unity would decline to cooperate or even to engage in a dialogue with a long-standing and influential local organization. Then again, if one considers the possibility of an ulterior motive, it makes far more sense. That the objectives of the CARE initiative were not entirely altruistic in nature is further evidenced by the fact that many of those who marched on that Saturday were clearly at the wrong parade. Apart from a few relevant signs pertaining to the Rev. Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, the majority of the signage present related to political causes either unrelated, inconsistent, or antithetical to the nominal theme of the parade. Among the messages displayed were pickets demand climate legislation, some leftovers from the presidential campaign including “lovetrumpshate” as well as a great plethora of rainbow flags. To an outside viewer unaware of the situation’s context, things looked more like a rally for the local Democratic party than any particular display of town unity.

            This entire controversy was decidedly overblown. The Sons of Confederate Veterans were ultimately able to secure the town’s permission to hold their traditional parade on the Sunday of the same weekend. Ironically, this had the effect of placing the Confederate parade closer to MLK Day while the CARE parade occurred closer to the actual Lee-Jackson Day. It seems the efforts of the activists to displace the backward local tradition backfired. This odd turn of events, strangely enough, afforded me the opportunity to attend both events. I’m happy to say that neither event was plagued by any sort of protest or disruption. The marches of both the CARE and SCV demonstrations were well-attended and well-manned with everyone in attendance seeming to enjoy the events. It made me wonder why there had to be so much tension and animosity if they could have simply scheduled two parades in the first place.

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