Kid Rock addresses the audience at the organization's annual fundraising dinner in Detroit, Sunday, May 1, 2011, as NAACP Detroit Chapter President Wendell Anthony looks on at right.

*Moments after the Detroit NAACP bestowed Kid Rock with its Great Expectations Award at its annual fundraising dinner on Sunday, the rap/rock/country star made a speech that aimed to diffuse the criticism that has surrounded his selection as an honoree.

According to the AP, he told nearly 10,000 people at the group’s annual Fight for Freedom Fund dinner at Cobo Center 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 told the crowd.

The Macomb County, Mich., native, real name Robert Ritchie, 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 the performer. The group also burned a replica of the flag, considered a symbol of racism and oppression to 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 John Lewis gave the dinner’s keynote speech.

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

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

“We’re not lifting up the flag,” 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.”

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.”

Protest leader Adolph Mongo holds a Confederate flag as it burns outside the NAACP's annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner in Detroit, Sunday, May 1, 2011

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

It “really is a symbol of the past,” 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.”

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

He called the controversy surrounding his use of the Confederate flag a “fiasco.”

“I’ve never flown that flag with any hate in my heart. Not one ounce,” Kid Rock said before announcing $50,000 in donations from his foundation to Detroit recreation centers, a conservancy on the city’s Belle Isle, a youth theater group, a youth training agency and Habitat for Humanity.

Ritchie met recently with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and discussed how he could help the city, mayoral spokeswoman Karen Dumas said Sunday night.

Ritchie also announced that his foundation would be donating $50,000 to storm relief efforts in tornado-ravaged states.

“That’s what Detroit city is all about,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough that we haven’t been touched by Mother Nature like our friends in the South have.”

His family-run foundation is very active in the Detroit area. It has supported the Detroit-based Karmanos Cancer Institute’s research and patient care, where Ritchie’s donations have included money, guitars and even an invitation to dinner — to the highest bidder.

Through his “Made in Detroit” apparel line, Ritchie recently established the Made in Detroit Endowed Scholarship to help offset tuition costs of Wayne State University students from throughout southeastern Michigan who are selected for their academic achievements and limited financial resources.