Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke traveled here today to urge that a giant image of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee be returned to a downtown flood wall, stirring anew the racially divisive issue.
For more than a month, the battle over Lee's image has bared racial tensions in the capital of the old Confederacy. Duke held his news conference at the memorial to tennis star Arthur Ashe, a spot of enormous pride to many in this majority-black city where Confederate monuments abound but only three statues commemorate African Americans.
Flanked by cameras, reporters and a small entourage, Duke warned that the Lee controversy was just one battle in a war over the heritage of "European Americans." He suggested that schools and streets named for founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- both slaveholders -- would soon be renamed.
"This is an opening salvo in an effort to destroy our American and Southern heritage," he said.
Despite scattered displays of sympathy -- one older couple nostalgic for segregation applauded Duke, and a younger man thanked him and shook his hand -- Duke's visit never rose above a media event. State and local leaders rushed to denounce him as a hatemonger on a thinly veiled publicity stunt.
Just the day before, a panel of 19 city leaders had largely resolved the Lee issue, deciding that a new version of the general stripped of Confederate insignia could hang on the flood wall. The original one was removed last month after protests from black leaders who called it an offensive glorification of the Confederacy.
Duke is a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who rose to prominence in Louisiana politics by touching racial nerves on issues such as crime, affirmative action and immigration. He once garnered significant white support as a GOP candidate for governor but has since had trouble winning votes for other offices, including a recent bid for Congress.
Today, it particularly rankled many Richmonders that Duke chose the Ashe monument for his news conference. The memorial is on Monument Avenue, the city's premier boulevard and one known for monuments to Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate heroes.
The tension was not lost on Duke. "We have to put up with Arthur Ashe, a sports star, on an avenue of heroes of the Confederacy," he said. "But they can't put up with a mural of Robert E. Lee. I can't understand that."
The comment angered some African Americans, who consider Ashe a hero and a humanitarian.
"It showed gross disrespect for what Arthur Ashe stood for," said Raymond H. Boone, editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press, a local black newspaper.
Though Duke declared his allegiance to the Republican Party, GOP leaders distanced themselves from Duke, as did the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who led the fight to return Lee to the flood wall. Gov. James S. Gilmore III, former governor George Allen and Lt. Gov. John H. Hager were among Republicans issuing denunciations.
Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine said Duke "is hungry for a headline. You can take Duke out of the Ku Klux Klan, but you can't take the kook out of David Duke."
CAPTION: Six-year-old India Wright, front right, is held by her father, Clyde, during David Duke's news conference in Richmond.