- Associated Press - Monday, May 2, 2011

DETROIT | Grammy-nominated artist Kid Rock told nearly 10,000 people at the Detroit NAACP branch’s annual fundraising dinner that his use of the Confederate flag during on-stage performances has nothing to do with how he feels about blacks.

“I love America. I love Detroit, and I love black people,” the musician said Sunday night during the annual Fight for Freedom Fund dinner at Cobo Center.

Kid Rock, whose real name is Robert Ritchie, used the event to defuse criticism aimed at the Detroit NAACP branch, which honored him with its Great Expectations Award.

The Macomb County, Mich., native said his use of the flag derives from a popular song by legendary Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Earlier, a group of about 50 people picketed outside Cobo Center in protest of the decision to honor Mr. Ritchie. The group also burned a replica of the flag, considered a symbol of racism and oppression to many blacks in the South. It was carried by secessionist Southern troops in the American Civil War.

The dinner is the largest fundraiser for the Detroit NAACP branch. Civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, gave the dinner’s keynote speech.

Others also were honored Sunday night, but most of the attention was focused on Mr. Ritchie.

Detroit NAACP President Wendell Anthony said Mr. Ritchie was being honored for his advocacy of the city.

“We’re not lifting up the flag,” Mr. Anthony said earlier Sunday. “We’re lifting up a gentleman who has worked very hard to be a booster for Detroit.”

From the time it was first announced, the choice of Kid Rock as honoree has been criticized by some who said the use of the Confederate flag conflicts with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s message.

“It stands for hatred, bigotry, racism, murder,” Detroit political consultant Adolph Mongo said of the flag. “Every bigot and racist in this country loves that flag.”

Mr. Mongo helped ignite the flag about 5 p.m. It took several attempts with a cigarette lighter before the flag caught fire to chants of “Burn, baby, burn.”

The Confederate flag symbolizes racial oppression for some, but also pride in the South for many Southerners, said Kirk Mayes, 35, of Detroit.

It “really is a symbol of the past,” Mr. Mayes said after attending the dinner. “Today, it’s about moving forward. We have to kind of be open to the spirit of forgiving. Not embracing its symbolism of hatred, but recognizing its relevance.”

Mr. Ritchie, who appeared at the event with his son, received loud applause when he was introduced and again when he stood to accept the award.

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