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Lee-Jackson Legacy Spurs Controversy in Virginia

The public debate over the legacy of the Confederacy in the Deep South came to a boil recently when two organizations –– one an anti-racist group and the other a Confederate heritage group –– got in a permit battle to hold competing marches in Lexington, Va. 

The argument culminated with a business owner deciding to violate zoning regulations and raise an 82-foot-tall flag poll flying to raise the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF).

The public controversy began after an anti-racist group, Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative (CARE) acquired a permit for their annual Lee-Jackson Day march in Lexington, the neo-Confederate heritage group the Virginia Flaggers responded by applying for a permit for the following Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

In Virginia, Lee’s birthday (January 19) is typically celebrated along with Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s birthday (January 21) on the second Friday of January, three days before the federally recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Virginia celebrated its dual Lee-Jackson birthday on the third Monday of January from 1904 to 1983, when the decision was made to rebrand it as Lee-Jackson-King Day to acknowledge the passage of MLK day as a federal holiday. In 2000, Governor Jim Gilmore split Lee-Jackson-King Day into two separate holidays.

If the overlapping celebration of two neo-Confederate icons in close conjunction with a beloved Civil Rights leader seems incongruous and confusing, bear in mind that Google was forced to issue an apology earlier this week when its famously problematic algorithm warned users in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi about business hours changes due to “Robert E. Lee’s Birthday”.

Virginia’s battle over public remembrances of the Confederacy was far from settled by Gilmore’s uneasy compromise. In 2011 the Lexington City Council banned the display of unofficial flags on city light and telephone poles. In spite of a First Amendment legal challenge by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, heritage groups couldn’t display the flags of the Confederacy during their annual pilgrimage this year.

Lexington has numerous sites of significance to Lee/Jackson admirers, including the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, Lee’s resting place, and two institutions of higher learning where the Confederate generals were on staff, namely Washington and Lee and the Virginia Military Institute.

Jackson’s taxidermied horse Little Sorrel is on public display on VMI’s campus, where visitors can still buy a t-shirt bearing one of his maxims. Washington and Lee boasts Lee Chapel, a statue in honor of Lee, and of course, the grave of his horse, Traveller.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the nationwide prevalence of Confederate monuments, place names, and rallies across the nation since Dylann Roof’s racially motivated killing of 9 black congregants at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME. Roof posed for photos with the CBF and intimated to friends that he desired to start “a civil war”.

The attack spurred calls for the removal of Confederate tributes in the days and weeks that ensued. Heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and Virginia Flaggers and some hate groups like the League of the South (LOS) immediately went on the defensive, organizing demonstrations and rides across the country, with the “battle flag” displayed prominently throughout.

Animated by Nikki Haley’s 2015 decision to remove the CBF from the dome of the South Carolina capitol building, movement newcomers ACTBAC NC (Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County) formed and in 2016 began a push to line Interstate 40 with CBF’s on private property.

ACTBAC NC and LOS members were particularly incensed by the decision by the City of Lexington to issue a permit to CARE, promising to join in the march and to boycott local businesses.

Legally barred from festooning the town with the “Stars and Bars”, the “Stainless Banner”, the “Third National”, or the “Battle Flag” and prevented from occupying the streets while CARE held a parade permit, the Virginia Flaggers spent Lee-Jackson Day marching up and down the sidewalks of Lexington with Confederate banners.

Present with them were a few SCV, LOS, and ACTBAC NC members. Their dress ranged from full re-enactor’s garb to piecemeal ensembles of tie-dye, denim, and leather biker kuttes with kepi hats. Red banners with a star-studded blue cross of St. Andrew flew in number.

After marching to each of Lexington’s hallowed sites, the group convened at Brian Rowsey’s 60 West Pawn Shop to erect a 20’x30’ CBF on an 82-foot tall pole that was cemented into the ground without obtaining a permit.

“That flag is not coming down,” Rowsey told The Roanoke Times, “The reason I put the flag up is that I see them pulling them down.”

The battle is but one in an ongoing cultural struggle over the place of the Confederate Battle Flag and other public commemorations of the Confederacy in the public square.

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