Timbers Army Blue Ridge Rangers, Virginia

Lexington, Virginia sits more than 2700 miles southeast of the Portland Timbers’ home. But it’ll raise few eyebrows as the town will host some Timbers Army activity this Saturday, Jan. 14, and for a timely cause.

That day, the Blue Ridge Rangers, an official Timbers Army regional chapter based in central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, join the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade in Lexington. The idea, they say, is to support the league’s "Don't Cross the Line Campaign," as well as the international soccer community's effort to "Show Racism the Red Card." But they haven’t picked just any local Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade to do so.

Lexington’s parade, organized by the group CARE (Community Anti-Racism Education), arose in direct response to recent events in the town. It’s become, according to CARE spokesperson Frederick Coye Heard, an annual battleground for “neo-Confederates” who wish to disrupt annual celebrations of King, Jr.’s life.

“For the past several years, neo-Confederates and their allies have come to Lexington on the weekend of the federal MLK holiday and aggressively ‘flagged’ — what they call the activity of standing on sidewalks and street corners and waving Confederate flags as passers-by — our downtown,” says Heard. Though most of these people don’t live in Lexington, he says, they’re drawn to the city for their activities because Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee are buried there. They’ve also been angered when the city council refused to let them fly Confederate flags on town property, and when Washington and Lee University similarly refused to display replica Confederate flags in its chapel.

“Now they are are attempting to intimidate the citizens of Lexington who want to celebrate Dr. King on a day they want reserved for Lost Cause propaganda,” says Heard. “We believe that nothing should be less controversial in 2017 than a community celebrating Dr. King's remarkable legacy on the weekend set aside nationally to honor his life and public ministry.”

The idea is to celebrate unity, he says, welcoming all to participate, and celebrate Southern heritage, too, without using symbols of hate.

Enter the Blue Ridge Rangers, who saw a ripe regional opportunity to spread the Timbers’ Army message of inclusiveness. Members Katherine Crowley, Nadjeeb Chouaf, Erik Jones, and Scott Behler got to work spreading the word among the local soccer community, asking them to join a group for the parade.

“It's important to note that the Timbers Army and the 107ist — Independent Supporters Trust — have always aimed for inclusiveness and acceptance of all people, not just supporters,” says Behler. “We have a saying, ‘If you want to be Timbers Army, then you already are.’”

This Blue Ridge Rangers, naturally, join the event with with full blessing from Portland. “The Timbers Army has a strong culture of social activism and a history of taking stands in support of diversity and equality,” says member Erik Jones. “They practically insisted that we move forward with the plan, and sent us Timbers Army and Cascadia flags to carry, along with a number of rainbow flags.”

They’ll also march in Lexington’s parade with support from clubs and fans from around the league. Columbus Crew SC sent them an official kit for someone to wear; supporters from Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, D.C., and Minnesota mailed gear as well.

It’s purposeful for turbulent times, says Behler, who hopes, with his group’s participation in the parade, to show the unifying power of soccer. “I felt that this was a good way to show support for those who [feel] scared or threatened,” he says. “Soccer is something that can transcend cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, and geographical divides. We know this because it is the most popular game in the world, so we see it as an opportunity to let the beautiful game do what it has done for years: bring people together.”

The parade takes place on Sat. Jan 14 at 10 a.m. ET, and you can check out visuals on the group’s social media via Facebook and Twitter. And naturally, this isn’t the last of their good-doing works for the near future. Next up, the Blue Ridge Rangers plan to produce merchandise, with all proceeds going to charity. They’re also joining a nationwide food drive organized by fellow Timbers supporters’ groups the Timbers Army Covert Ops (Seattle) and Eastern Bloc (Oregon, east of the Willamette Valley).

“Obviously, as fans, we’re by definition very passionate people,” says Jones. “It’s nice, when the opportunity arises, to harness that energy and apply it to things that are more important than soccer.”

Full details about Lexington, Virginia’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade can be found at carerockbridge.org.