MARBLEHEAD—A religious group that gathered downtown yesterday to atone for the sins of slavery drew a rival protest from a small band of white supremacists, who marched through town alongside them handing out leaflets and sporting T-shirts saying “Not guilty.”
The anti-slavery demonstration was organized by the Christian tour group Lifeline Expedition, which is traveling around the world to slavery’s root spots in an effort to reverse its effects through prayer and forgiveness. They chose to visit Marblehead because it was one of the first slave ports in America.
Participating were about a dozen white demonstrators wearing yokes and chains to symbolize their repentance for the sin of slavery and black T-shirts that said “So sorry.” Black demonstrators walked behind them as a sign of forgiveness.
But as the procession formed for a march from Abbot Hall to the waterfront, they were met by a handful of members of National Alliance, a white supremacy group, who called the exercise “degrading” to white people.
“People walking around in chains—look at that! That’s disgusting,” said Michael Medeiros, Boston coordinator for National Alliance and a self-described white activist. “Slavery was a terrible thing, but it ended a century and a half ago.”
He shouted “End the guilt!” into the open windows of cars driving by.
The three other members of the white supremacy group, some wearing black T-shirts that said “Not guilty,” passed out fliers purporting that Jews owned many of the slaves in America, Africans were responsible for selling other Africans into slavery and white colonists were actually the first slaves in America.
The two small groups traipsed through town side by side, a snake of clanking chains, drum beats and shouts of protest, to the waterfront.
Each booklet handed out by demonstrators was followed by one from the National Alliance.
“I thought it was quite strange,” said Dave Bannister of Oxford, England, a tourist watching the scene. “There’s no slavery anymore, and why the protest?”
By the time the protesters and demonstrators arrived at the waterfront, a crowd of onlookers had gathered. People lunching at The Landing stretched out of their patio chairs to look. Shopkeepers leaned on doorways. Annette Bornstein of Revere stepped out of her art class and nervously accepted a flier from a National Alliance member.
“Slavery was a sign of the times,” Bornstein said after reading it. “They shouldn’t be blaming the Jews or anyone else. This is 2004. They should be looking to the future at something positive.”
Several onlookers were skeptical of both Lifeline Expedition and the National Alliance.
“Are they looking for an apology?” asked Pete Fitzpatrick of Marblehead. “Well, I kind of think they should get over it, frankly.”
Jay Sahagian, owner of The Barnacle restaurant, was hauling lobster bait from the back of his truck when the demonstrators, still chained, knelt down to pray at the waterfront. He refused a flier from the National Alliance.
“Oh, let them do it,” he said of the demonstration. “You’ve got to let this stuff go sometimes.”
Lifeline Expedition tour began in England four years ago. Marblehead is the third stop on the United States visit, which began two weeks ago in Maryland. The group planned to demonstrate on Boston Common today.
“We’re deeply sorry about the sins of our forefathers,” said Dave Pott of London, England, the headmaster of a Christian school who founded the organization.
Pott and Medeiros, a leader of the National Alliance group, talked civilly about their clashing views before the procession began.
Medeiros thought the act of chaining white people and apologizing for slavery resulted in “a white guilt complex.”
Pott explained he was not guilt-ridden, but wanted to show accountability for sins of those who went before him. The exercise was intended to be a spiritual reconciliation with God, not only for slavery, but for sins in general.
A handful of the demonstrators were American. Most came from the Caribbean, France and England. One American family was traveling in a motor home with nine children from near Seattle.
The children, who are home-schooled, marched in the parade. One wore a yoke around his neck. Their father, Michael Lienau, is making a documentary film about the demonstrators.
After members of the National Alliance left the waterfront, three Marblehead police officers showed up and began asking questions about the demonstrators and protesters.
Police officers said they received calls from residents asking why children were in the parade and not in school. Lt. Matt Freeman said police did not receive calls regarding concerns about the National Alliance.