LEXINGTON — As Brandon Dorsey read the governor's proclamation recognizing Virginia's favorite Confederate generals, a small plane circled overhead towing a long banner that read:
"Shame on Lexington: Honor Lee & Jackson."
Dorsey, clad in a gray uniform befitting a camp commander of a Sons of Confederate Veterans brigade, stopped reading and said, "The Confederate air force has arrived!"
The crowd laughed, providing a brief break from the quiet ceremony that took place Saturday morning in Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. Despite the airborne banner's criticism of Lexington, hundreds of people were already honoring Thomas Jackson and Robert E. Lee during Lee-Jackson Day events.
However, the banner's message was understood by most of the gray and butternut-clad confederation, whose members pointed cameras and cellphones heavenward to snap photographs of the sign. Saturday's festivities, which included a parade, wreath-laying ceremony and guest speakers, took place under a shroud of controversy and litigation.
In 2011, the Lexington City Council approved an ordinance that prohibited all flags from city-owned poles except for the United States, Virginia and city flags. That meant no more Rebel flags flying from the city poles, not even on Lee-Jackson Day.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued to have the ordinance overturned, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last June. The group appealed and will make its case before Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in March.
On Saturday, companies of re-enactors and Confederate heritage groups marched down Main Street, which was lined with red, white and blue American flags flapping from city poles.
One block after passing beneath a banner that paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., marchers arrived at Main and Nelson streets, where a few people carried Confederate flags as part of what was described as a "flag vigil."
Kirk Lyons of Black Mountain, N.C., wore a Confederate hat and coat as he carried a flag. His daughter Catherine and niece Abby Willis held flags across the street. His sons Nathanael and Robert and nephew Ewan Willis also participated in the vigil.
The family endured a nine-hour trip through a snowstorm that stranded them on Interstate 77 in Carroll County on Thursday night. They spent much of Friday holding Rebel flags on Main Street and returned Saturday morning. Lyons said he planned to be there until late afternoon, when he would head to the Virginia Horse Center to call the dance at an evening ball.
"People in Lexington need to see us here," Lyons said. "The flag needs to be seen in downtown Lexington. If we can't have it on the pole, we'll have it at the base of the pole."
Lyons is no stranger to Confederate controversies. On its website, the Southern Poverty Law Center calls Lyons a "white supremacist lawyer" who co-founded the Southern Legal Resource Center, "which has effectively become the legal arm of the neo-Confederate movement," the website says.
Lyons — who spoke easily with strangers, several of whom asked him to pose for photographs after they admired his uniform — said that he has befriended people of all races. He said, as head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Heritage Defense Committee, he believes the group has a chance to win its lawsuit on appeal.
"We know it was an ordinance designed to keep Confederate flags off the flag pole," he said.
The parade took less than 15 minutes to make it down the street, as pipers piped, drummers drummed and the Virginia Flaggers of Richmond sang "Dixie." A couple of hundred marchers participated and perhaps a little more than 100 people watched from the sidewalks.
The morning began with a wreath-laying ceremony and hymn singing at Jackson's grave, where most of Stonewall is buried. (His left arm was amputated at Chancellorsville, where he was accidentally shot by his own men in 1863, and was buried by itself. Jackson died of his wounds after infection and pneumonia set in.)
Lexington's weekend of events are among the few festivities in the state that celebrate Lee-Jackson Day, which had been combined with Martin Luther King Jr. Day until Gov. Jim Gilmore separated the holidays in 2000.
Lexington has a long history with Lee and Jackson, both of whom are buried in the city. Jackson taught at VMI for 10 years before becoming a Civil War legend. After leading the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee became president of Washington College, which added his name to its own following his death in 1870.
"I think it's pretty amazing to walk the same grounds they did," said David Hinton, a bagpiper with the Edmund Ruffin Fire Eaters SCV Camp 3000 of Mechanicsville. "It's just amazing to be in the place where they did great works in war or peace."