By Ellen Kanzinger

Molly Michelmore was born and raised in the north. She had never heard of Lee-Jackson Day until she moved to Lexington in 2006.

Even then, the Virginia holiday was not something she and her family acknowledged. But this year, she and others in Lexington are apprehensive about the possibility that the city could experience violence similar to what happened in Charlottesville last August when groups clashed over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

CARE Rockbridge supporters parade through Lexington in January 2017. (Rockbridge Report photo)

“Charlottesville is on everyone’s mind, given our city’s history,” Michelmore said. “However, I think it is important to stand up, especially right now in light of recent events.”

Designated a Virginia holiday in 1904, Lee-Jackson Day celebrates the lives of Lee and another Confederate general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Lee-Jackson Day falls on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day every year.

Both Lee and Jackson are buried in Lexington, a city of about 7,000 people that is sometimes referred to as “the Shrine of the South.”

The Stonewall Brigade, a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, celebrates the holiday with a weekend of speakers and a parade on Main Street.

In 2017, CARE Rockbridge and the Stonewall Brigade wanted to hold a parade on the same day in January.

CARE, formed in early 2016 after Ku Klux Klan leaflets were distributed in town, wanted to hold a parade for MLK Day in response to the usual Lee-Jackson events. CARE applied for and received a permit for the Saturday that the Stonewall Brigade usually marches down Main Street. The weekend passed without incident as CARE paraded on Jan. 14 and the Stonewall Brigade marched on Jan. 15.

This fall, both groups requested permits to hold parades in January 2018, although on different days. The Lexington City Council approved permits for the Lee-Jackson Day Parade on Jan. 13 and the CARE parade on Jan. 15, MLK Day.

For years, groups from around the nation have descended on Lexington to celebrate the Confederacy and two of its most famous generals. While the annual holiday is normally peaceful, events in Charlottesville demonstrated how that could change.

On the night of August 11, white supremacists marched to a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville. Protestors, who carried tiki torches, chanted “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us” before police officers broke up the demonstration.

The following day, protestors held a rally to “Unite the Right” in response to a Charlottesville City Council decision to remove a statue of Lee from a local park. The protest made its way through the streets to the former Lee Park, recently renamed Emancipation Park. Violence broke out between the white supremacists and counter-protestors as police tried to clear the streets.

Later that afternoon, a man drove through a packed side street, killing Heather Heyer, 32, a Charlottesville resident, and injuring 19 others when he slammed his silver Dodge Charger into the crowd. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, has been charged with first-degree murder and several other felonies.

Lexington sits an hour southwest of Charlottesville. The city has strong ties to the Confederate generals because of their connections to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.

Jackson was a professor at VMI before the Civil War and cadets study his military tactics today. Lee served as president of W&L after the war. The university later changed its name to honor its 11th president a few months after his death in 1870.

Ethan Kipnes, the director of public safety at W&L, said his department is monitoring social media for mentions of white supremacists who may be targeting the campus for a meeting.

Lee and several members of his family are buried on W&L’s campus. A number of buildings, including Lee Chapel, are named for him.

“For lack of a better way to put it, those things are potential targets for some group or another that has a particular agenda,” Kipnes said.

W&L attracted national attention in 2014 when former President Kenneth Ruscio removed eight Confederate battle flags from inside Lee Chapel. The change came after a group of black law students demanded that the university acknowledge its history with slavery and remove the replicas from the chapel.

Members of the Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Virginia Flaggers and League of the South held a joint rally at Hopkins Green on July 25, 2014, to protest the decision. Members of the university administration said they received threatening messages in the days and weeks after the incident.

The following year, the university denied the Stonewall Brigade’s request to use Lee Chapel for a Lee-Jackson Day event. The university had allowed the group to hold events in previous years.

But it’s not planned events like Lee-Jackson Day that worry Kipnes.

“When we’ve got the events in January, where there are parades that have been requested, permits have been filled out, those things you can plan for,” he said. “The things where a group of people just decide to show up on your doorstep are a little more challenging to deal with.”

Arlette Hernandez, a senior at W&L from Jacksonville, Fla., said she sometimes worries about being a minority student in Lexington.

“It’s terrifying that this is something you have to fear in a place that you’re supposed to be calling your home,” she said.

Dennis Garvis, the treasurer of CARE, said the purpose of the parade in January is to build community.

“We’re not protestors,” he said. “We are people who live and work here in town. The entire emphasis was never on being any kind of protest but to say there are people in town who stand for inclusion, diversity and looking ahead.”

Multiple members of the Stonewall Brigade did not return repeated requests for an interview.

Lexington’s chief of police Samuel Roman said his department is involved in internal discussions about the upcoming parades in January.

“I think we can look to Charlottesville and ask them what would you do different if you had to do it all over again,” he said.

Planning for Lee-Jackson Day began before Roman became chief at the beginning of October. He refused to talk about specific details, but said the police department is working closely with other local and state officials to ensure the safety of everyone present.

“For me, what’s monumental, is collaboration,” he said. “I don’t think you can manage a weekend like that without collaboration.”

Such collaboration includes working with the Virginia Fusion Center, which formalizes cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to prepare for potential criminal or terrorist activity. Fusion centers were set up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to encourage law enforcement agencies to share information and resources.

“All we can do,” Roman said, “is plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Published Dec. 13, 2017