It was, according to some, not a sight one would expect to see on the weekend celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday — dozens of men in Confederate regalia marching in the streets of Baltimore and giving speeches praising generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
A group of about 50 protesters stood in silent opposition across the street from the ceremony Saturday morning. If you feel you must honor your Confederate ancestors, they asked, why not move the event to another date?
"I feel like they're trying to make a point," said Suraju Kehinde, 17, holding a large sign that said "Change the Date." His mother, Ann, said she and her mixed-race son live near the annual Confederate ceremony and he inspired her to start organizing the silent protest with local Quakers three years ago.
But members of the local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy said they were honoring Confederate generals Lee and Jackson at a time near their birthdays, which fell on Jan. 19 and Jan. 21, respectively. King's birthday was Jan. 15, while the federal holiday in his name is held on the third Monday of each January.
"We get sometimes very inappropriately branded because of what our ancestors did as their duty," said Jay Barringer, Maryland division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who wore a kilt and other regalia and played a bagpipe during the march. "We get called racists, and nothing could be further from the truth."
Barringer, a North Carolina native who lives in Eldersburg, insisted the event was not intended to "antagonize" or detract from King's legacy. "Everyone should be proud of their ancestry," he said.
The annual ceremony, held at the Lee-Jackson monument near the Baltimore Museum of Art, has been held on the third weekend in January for years, the Confederate group said, though members were not sure when it began. Some in the Confederate group, which numbered about 80, said they had been attending annual ceremonies at the monument in some form since the 1950s.
The Confederate descendants, many dressed in gray war uniforms and carrying Confederate flags, marched along Wyman Park Drive to the Lee-Jackson monument, where they gave speeches, saluted the Confederate and United States flags, whooped and prayed together. "We thank you for the gifts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson," said the woman leading the prayer.
Michael Glenn, 73, of Harford County said the event was "about history, not politics."
"We're here to honor the two great men who fought for a cause they believed in," he said. "They're men of honor and integrity."
The hourlong ceremonies haven't garnered much attention until recent years. Several people walking by asked for more information from the protesters and were handed fliers. A few joined them. "Freaking ludicrous," said one woman, shaking her head.
Tessa Hill-Alston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the group had been unaware of the Confederate ceremony until the Quaker group called and asked them to join the protest, which they did gladly. She said the event made her "very uncomfortable."
"Everyone has a right to free speech, but it's blatant racism," said Hill-Alston, who added that she doesn't accept the history-buff rationale. "I've been on trips to Gettysburg, to other Civil War sites. I know the history," she said.