Blog. No. 8: The Lexington Marchers

LEXINGTON, VA -- - Change is sometimes very hard. In this college town located about 250 miles south of Washington, D.C., the spirit of the Old South and Dixie is still smoldering, still rattling around despite pleas from some residents to give racial equality a chance. And yet, in Lexington there is also civility, hope, and a model for us to consider. Lexington is home to Washington and Lee University. It’s also home to the Virginia Military Institute or VMI. There couldn’t be two very different college campuses located less than a mile apart. Washington and Lee is a private, leafy, preppy, expensive, and elite school. Annual tuition is $67,560, the highest in Virginia’s Commonwealth. Young men and women who attend it are predominately urban, white and rich. It has an active social community, rich heritage and some very fine professors. In short, it’s a terrific school. Robert E. Lee is buried here. He was named president of the college after the Civil War. A statue of Lee sits in the middle of the Episcopal Church. It’s hard to get away from the image of the Confederacy with flags and statues of Civil War generals all around at Washington and Lee. Just down the street is VMI, Stonewall Jackson’s beloved home. Scores of young men have graduated from VMI over the years, giving it the distinction of being known as the “West Point of the South.” It’s strict honor code; personal discipline, castle-like buildings and rigorous academics are a hallmark of this venerable institution. Conservative, proud, small and (surprisingly) a state school, VMI attracts future military and business leaders. Annual tuition is $7,324. Many believe it an honor to be accepted to VMI. Each year, many students and alumni dress in Confederate uniforms; attend balls and dances, and march, march, march to the beat of a very different drum than their brethren across town. You couldn’t find two very different schools if you tried. There’s also a third important institution in Lexington, VA. It’s the Virginia State Horse Center, home of the National Equestrian Show competitions held bi-annually (it’s sister institution is located in Lexington, KY., where the event is also held every other year.) at a large Coliseum and complex on the edge of town. Indeed, one could argue that Lexington is one of the most important Equestrian Horse training centers in America. Riders from all walks of life converge on Lexington, VA for amazing displays of great horsemanship. Competition is fierce, but also highly organized and tightly managed. Having attended several competitions as a parent of a rider, I can attest to the scale, scope, size and drama of the overall equestrian competitions. It’s first rate. Rolex Cup and Olympic trials have been held in Lexington over the years. So these three very unique and important institutions -- - The Horse Center, VMI and Washington and Lee, are all an important part of the heritage and history of Lexington, VA. Folks in these parts, as you might imagine, have rather differing political views, too. The college professors and academics tend to be liberal. As are the vast majority of the college student residents. The military instructors and more rural residents tend to be conservative. The horse people are a mix of both, but overall also tend to be more akin to farmers and breeders than urban elites. In short, many horse people are conservative, too. Just north of Lexington, in nearby Fairfield, VA is a private residence, home to Raymond Agnor, 73, a white, very conservative, and outspoken Virginian whose disdain for anyone who doesn’t support, well, Dixie and Mr. Trump, is clear and pronounced. Agnor has erected a symbol of this disdain, a very large Confederate Flag, which flies atop an 80-foot pole, on hill on his land that happens to overlook Interstate Highway 81. It’s brightly lit at night and very visible from the highway. Here’s what The Washington Post wrote about the flag: Just outside Lexington lies conservative Rockbridge County, where “Vote Trump” and “Lock Her Up,” a reference to Hillary Clinton, are written in white block letters on the side of an old barn. Behind it, a large Confederate battle flag flies from an 80-foot pole on private property. After the flag was planted, the property’s owner (Agnor) placed an ad in a local newspaper declaring: “No black people or Democrats are allowed on my property until further notice.” Michael Chittum, 54, who traveled from Rockbridge County to march in Lexington over the weekend, said, “I don’t believe in all that hate,” adding that he supported much of what Dr. King stood for, “but I don’t believe in shoving it down people’s throats all at once.” Wielding a battle flag and standing with his 11-year-old daughter, Mr. Chittum explained that he felt that to deny his family’s Confederate roots would be unfair to his three children. He had no problem with the (MLK Day) parade celebrating Dr. King, he said, but he was uncomfortable with some part of the paraders’ message, including marriage equality. Yes, the parade. Each year in Lexington, the town celebrates its historic heritage with a Lee-Jackson Memorial Day, including a march with Confederate Flags flying. Men on horseback, dressed as confederate soldiers, proudly wave the Stars and Bars commemorating their beloved rebel generals. Bagpipes play, and folks hoot and holler the Rebel Yell. It just so happened that this year’s MLK Day celebration came around the same time as the Lee-Jackson Celebration, which as we said, is also usually marked by a parade down Main Street. But, in an interesting twist, the MLK organizers applied for the first -- - and it turns out -- - only parade permit last Saturday to commemorate America’s most famous African American (other than perhaps Barak Obama). Happily, the two groups did not converge into a sea of turmoil and hate. Rather, they marched at different ends of town, at different times, and did not run into one another. And, despite some naysayers, and a very few hecklers, respected each other’s right to public demonstration. Respect without incident or violence was the order of the day in Lexington last Saturday. The dichotomy of the two parades, and the clear political divide between the two Lexington groups, did not escape notice. Some on the Town Council are advocating for racial harmony. There is a large and vibrant black community in Lexington, and its concern about the racial divide is tangible. Indeed, they’ve found a way to integrate, and work side by side with their white neighbors. For all its differences, Lexington works. And as you can see, is a very interesting place. A very American place. The distinct harmonious divisiveness in Lexington seemed a perfect metaphor for our country as we move toward Mr. Trump’s inauguration. We may not all agree with our new president. We may have deep concerns about the direction of the country after the November elections. And, as I write this, we shall see in both the pomp and circumstance of the Inauguration, and the subsequent Women’s March the following day, that the American experiment in democracy will again be tested, and no doubt triumph. As we saw in Lexington last Saturday, the peaceful transfer of power, and the subsequent marches to question the new direction our politicians may take us -- - can be organized with style, grace and harmony. We may not all agree, but we can at least be civil in our discourse and comport ourselves as civilized Americans, respecting the rights of others. Mr. Jefferson said that revolution is good for the soul. Let’s hope Mr. Trump’s Revolution is gentle, courteous and timed with perfection. Just like those competitors at the Lexington State Equestrian Center. Just like the cadets at VMI. And just like the marchers in Lexington last Saturday.