Virginia Town Models First Amendment


Born and bred Yankees traveling across Dixie are often perplexed upon seeing their first Confederate monument. Most were inculcated with a pro-North narrative in which the rebellion was an illegal, senseless and morally indefensible waste of 620,000 combatants in the name of states’ rights. Indeed, depending on how deeply the visitor was schooled in a northerner’s Civil War polemic, a trip to a rebel shrine can feel like a time-warp reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines.

But the pickings are getting slimmer for uninitiated Yanks wanting a glimpse of a true Confederate memorial. 2017 saw an unprecedented effort to rid public and university settings of rebel statues and other fixed tributes: by year’s end, some 1,500 were removed, mothballed or relocated.

Yet not every solemn nod to Confederate sacrifice was crafted of concrete or brass. The Southern calendar of holidays was altered post-war to pay further respect: from Reconstruction through the 1930s, all former secessionist states established legal holidays in remembrance of rebel leaders, sailors and soldiers.

Yet today eight of the 11 — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia — observe at least one such occasion. And Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi recognize Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the same day.

If there’s a legitimate eyebrow-raiser on the list of states it’s the comparatively moderate Commonwealth of Virginia, where each year Lee-Jackson Day remains a legal holiday, observed on the Friday before MLK Day. (Virginia was on the list of states combining the holidays from 1978 to 2000.)

The longtime epicenter of Lee-Jackson Day is the otherwise progressive town of Lexington, home to Washington and Lee University and the burial sites for both men.

But things are changing in that small but symbolic burg. After a decade of hosting part of the annual observance, the university’s administration in 2015 voted to disallow the use of its chapel (named for Lee) for all neo-Confederate events — a move that continues to draw the ire of the body charged with planning the two-day schedule.

From a statement posted on the organizers’ website (

“Washington & Lee’s administration now considers honoring Robert E. Lee in Lee Chapel on Lee-Jackson Day to be an improper use of a building built under the administration of Robert E. Lee, which is also his gravesite and the home of the Lee Memorial. As Donald Trump recently said, Political Correctness has ruined our country. Robert E. Lee, while a humble man … would not want such a fuss about himself whether he deserves it or not. [But] the general would no doubt be ashamed of the university’s rejection of nearly all traditional values and its succumbing to marxist mob rule.”

Yet while the chapel is off limits, the commemoration itself, complete with symposium, wreath-laying, memorial service and guided walking tour of Confederate sites, has continued.

But it’s the annual Lee-Jackson Day parade through town that sets Lexington’s citizens and elected officials on edge: although the organizers dutifully obtain parade permits, the sight of stout men, gray uniforms and rebel battle flags walking in step down the thoroughfares has always attracted an equally committed, if restrained opposition.

The town’s collective anxiety reached a new high last year as a local coalition of anti-racism groups beat their pro-Lee-Jackson Day counterparts to the punch, obtaining the sole parade permit for Saturday, the day traditionally reserved by the neo-Confederates. Held in King’s honor, the march drew an estimated 600.

Down but not out, the Neos’ parade was approved for that Sunday. Their ranks were swollen by outsiders eager to protest the accommodation what one parade participant termed “agitators.”

Predictably, harsh words emanated from both sides. (If you’ve ever been part of a countermarch you know things can get chippy.) But (with good planning and good policing) no physical incidents were reported at either event.

The Constitution had held the day once again.

Seems to me Lexington’s yearly exercise is (thus far) a microcosmic model in how municipalities can deliver on the right to peaceful assembly in such bitter times. Yes, in a more just world the Virginia legislature would jettison, with prejudice, a holiday from a different time and a different South. And that day will come.

But until then, Lexington is a reminder that liberals are no less accountable to the rule of law than the Republican Congress that skirts it with abandon.

Postscript: This year the Neos regained the Saturday slot. The march for Dr. King was moved to Monday, Jan. 15. We win some, and we lose some …

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 2, 2018

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