The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Conflicting legacies: a closer look at Lexington’s dual celebrations

Lee-Jackson Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day are recognized in Lexington just days apart — evoking reactions from the community
Ruby Gregg
The Lee-Jackson Day parade was held on Jan. 13 in downtown Lexington.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 22 to protect the identity of an individual who did not wish to be named.

At a Thursday event celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., two Lexington residents stood before a crowd and shared stories about growing up during the Civil Rights Movement and watching their city desegregate. The two Black women still live in Lexington today and carry the city’s history in their memories.

Other audience members recounted memories of only being allowed to sit in the balcony seats at movie theaters, of watching “whites only” signs be taken down at water fountains, of being taught at the kitchen table how to stay safe in a world full of racial violence.

“I’ve never had the luxury of not thinking about race,” one audience member said. “I have a great-granddaughter. I would like for her to… be free, to live a life where that’s not somewhere in her mind.”

Just days before that event in support of racial equality, Confederate flags lined the sign at the school’s entrance that reads, “Washington and Lee University.”

Lexington’s complex history, including its ties to the Confederacy, is showcased on the third weekend of January every year.

Lee-Jackson Day, a Virginian holiday honoring Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, was first celebrated in 1889. It began as a birthday celebration for Lee on Jan. 19. Participants later added Jackson’s Jan. 21 birthday.

Nearly a century later, ceremonies for Martin Luther King Jr. began on his birthday – Jan. 15.

When former President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill in 1983, Lee-Jackson-King Day was born.

About two decades later, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore split the holiday and moved Lee-Jackson Day to the Friday preceding MLK Day. In 2020, Virginia eliminated Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday.

At the Lexington burial sites of both generals, people still gather each year to celebrate Lee-Jackson Day on the Saturday before MLK Day. A parade proceeds down Main Street, where many participants dress in Confederate Civil War garb. Most participants are members of groups like the Virginia Flaggers and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The members are not Lexington locals.

The following Monday kicks off a week of recognition for King at Washington and Lee. Hundreds marched in the MLK Day parade put on by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE).

“The whole point of the CARE parade is to show that this community is committed to looking forward, that we are so much more than sort of nostalgia for a slaveholding regime,” said Robin LeBlanc, vice president of CARE.

LeBlanc emphasized the CARE parade’s larger local turnout.

“They’re from here. They study here,” she said. “We hosted just to say to each other, to people new to our community, to our brothers and sisters of color in our community and to people who come from outside that this is what we stand for: justice, love and equality. Nonviolence. Firm commitment to an equal community.”

Speakers at the university’s MLK week events agreed that they want to uphold King’s commitment to equality. Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms gave the keynote speech of the week on Monday.

“I’m sitting here, in this beautifully diverse room, because of Dr. King,” Bottoms said. She said both King’s work and her own accomplishments led her to where she is today. Bottoms previously served as an attorney, a judge and the senior advisor and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.


An abundance of events

Washington and Lee hosted a total of 10 events celebrating King’s legacy this year, from a musical tribute to a basketball tournament to speeches like Bottoms’.

“We have a week of celebrations. A lot of other institutions celebrate one day — we go big, we don’t go home,” said Tamara Futrell, the dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement.

At the University of Richmond, a school located in the former capital of the Confederacy, programming extended beyond Jan. 15 but included fewer events than Washington and Lee, according to the university’s website.

At Sewanee, a similar Southern liberal arts college, programming does not continue beyond one service day honoring King’s maxim of non-violence.

University of Virginia’s celebration of King began with a walk on Sunday, Jan. 14. This was followed by a few events over the next week. Still, Washington and Lee’s programming far exceeded UVA.

During the “Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” event on Jan. 17, Lexington community members and student leaders considered Dr. King’s work in an open-ended discussion.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of great people,” said  Ayesha Kelly, general surgeon of Carilion Clinic in Lexington. “We’ve gone forward because of people like Dr. King and because of local heroes.”

Kelly said she aims to counteract pervasive racism in health care, which prevented generations of her family from accessing the treatments they needed.


Confederate flags on school grounds

Despite the university’s support of the civil rights leader and rejection of the “Lost Cause” narrative, participants of the Lee-Jackson Parade continued to flock to sidewalks just outside the university. People hung Confederate flags along the corner of West Washington Street and North Jefferson Street, across Washington and Lee’s entrance sign.

In the past five years, Washington and Lee has scrubbed much memorabilia of Lee from the campus, including moving objects like Confederate flags from museums to archives.

These actions have not been without backlash. But those who identify with King’s vision say they continue to move forward.

“In reflecting on Dr. King’s dream, I recognize that I, the grandson of sharecroppers and the descendent of slaves, attend an institution of higher education that wouldn’t allow his grandparents that same opportunity,” said Mark Shelton, regimental commander at VMI. “In a way, I am the dream.”

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  • M

    Margaret Alexander '24Jan 23, 2024 at 4:49 pm

    While this article explored the sharp contrast between Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Lee-Jackson Day in Lexington, it unfortunately exhibits inaccuracies and vague statements about institutional history and recent campus initiatives.

    “In the past five years, Washington and Lee has scrubbed much memorabilia of Lee from the campus, including moving objects like Confederate flags from museums to archives.”

    Incorrect. Flags were removed in 2014, now ten years ago. See Washington Post article, “Washington and Lee to remove Confederate flags following protests” (I cannot link it here).

    Additionally, those Confederate flags were never moved to Special Collections and Archives. The flags on display were replicas, and the originals are in a different museum.

    I would hope the next article even tangentially related to Lee or the Confederacy takes better time to research university history. Every writer should make hyperlinks to support their claims.

    • K

      Kamron M. Spivey, '24Feb 6, 2024 at 2:18 pm

      And they haven’t corrected the inaccuracy. Not surprising…

  • K

    KimJan 23, 2024 at 12:02 pm

    There is a lot of history in this town, but many here still are very RACIST AND ONLY MARCH IN THE PARADE For that very reason . Most carry the Confederate flag to be racist, not for heritage.Many in this group don’t know the heritage of any events that took place. But on the other hand many do,
    I’m offended the way these people act to Black people. Sure a lot happened in Lexington during the Civil War and I respect that. But there WILL NEVER BE A CONFEDRRATE FLAG FLOWN ON MY PROPERTY! Because the KKK USES IT when they march.
    I understand how the black community feels! Slavery has been gone a long time. But RACISM GETS WORSE EVERY DAY. I’ve over heard numerous people say “Everybody needs a good N*G*ER! The local people that walk in parade with their flags are very racist.
    I have as many if not more black friends than white. It hurts me to see their pain over this. The history is a part of this town but that’s not the way it’s represented!

    • F

      FomaJan 31, 2024 at 11:35 pm

      1. I have no confidence you “know the heritage” better than those bearded Flaggers.

      2. Confederate flags donned Lexington for decades without protest.

      3. The “KKK” hardly exists today. It’s a few thousand people divided among several different organizations.

      4. “I’ve over heard numerous people say “Everybody needs a good N*G*ER!”
      —I’ll take things you made up for $400, Alex.