Many leaders of American history are not only remembered in our history books, but also greatly honored through our holidays. While holidays like President’s Day are designed to celebrate the achievement of those who have contributed to making America great, sometimes citizens disagree about who deserves such accolades — and when they should receive them.
This is especially true for the debate that has raged for decades between those seeking to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the same day that a handful of states salute General Robert E. Lee, the commanding officer of the Confederate Army.
Although King’s birthday is a federal holiday commemorated on the third Monday of January, Lee’s birthday is not officially recognized. Regardless of this detail, many people in the south choose to celebrate his life and achievements on either the third Monday of January or January 19th, which is Lee’s actual birthday.
This year, in Lexington, VA, which holds the largest Lee celebration in the state, Lee’s birthday will be celebrated on January 14th. But the Washington Post reports that:
When Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday (Jan. 15, 1929) became a federal holiday in 1983, Virginia marked [King and Lee’s] birthdays on the same date rather than give state workers two days off. It was an awkward situation that was finally resolved when the state joined the federal government in marking King’s birthday on the third Monday of the month.
It’s hard to reconcile this schism in observances between honoring a man who fought for racial equality on the same day as another who fought to keep blacks enslaved.
Indeed, while most states celebrate King birthday singularly, several continue to proudly acknowledge Lee’s at the same time on King’s designated day. The states known to celebrate Lee with King are Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia.
Many believe celebrating both men with such opposing world views on the same day defeats the purpose of honoring Dr. King.
As the executive director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt leads a secularists’ organization dedicated to promoting morality that is not based on religious beliefs. Speckhardt told theGrio that he celebrates King’s birthday, and cannot understand why some states choose to celebrate Lee’s simultaneously.
“No Lee expert is needed to observe the simple fact that he led a military rebellion that was primarily motivated by the desire of certain states to continue the practice slavery,” Speckhardt said. “Therefore, talented general or simple villain, he championed an immoral cause.”
Speckhardt outlined the obvious reasons Lee supporters should stop celebrating his birthday on a day reserved nationally for MLK.
“It would be fair to characterize any effort to combine the two dates as: 1) inconvenient since Lee’s birthday is actually closer to Saturday [depending on the year]; 2) insensitive: doing this shows cavalier disregard of the widely-known feelings of an oppressed group; and 3) racist,” Speckhardt emphasized as, “promoters of this practice can’t convincingly deny that combining these celebrations has a racist angle.”
Speckhardt mused: “For what else could be driving them?” — implying that combining the days can only be read as an intentional jeer at the memory of King.
Despite these implications, Lee supporters such as right-wing columnist Gail Jarvis of the LewRockwell blog continue to voice their reverence for the Confederate leader accordingly:
If you rely on the mainstream media for your news, you probably do not know that January 19, is the anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee. Nor would you know that numerous celebrations will be held to honor the General on that day. I am not sure why the mainstream media ignores Lee. It is certainly not because he isn’t newsworthy. Lee is immensely popular not only throughout America but also in Europe.
Speckhardt believes such thinkers need to acknowledge the greater reality that, “Many people believe that [Lee] was the head of an army that preserved immorality in an unjustifiable way,” no matter how important his legacy seems to modern southerners. “You can’t get around that.”Supporters of Martin Luther King Day also fear that merging the two holidays significantly diminishes the contributions that King made to America, in addition to being racially insensitive.
Monique Harrison, who is an American Dream Fellow of Rebuild the Dream — an organization dedicated to organizing protests that empower Americans on the grass roots level — told theGrio that today it’s more important than ever for Americans to understand that Dr. King’s work unparalleled.
“Dr. King and countless others dedicated their lives to the struggle for racial, social, and economic equality,” Hairston said. “In 2012, Americans are still struggling to achieve equality in these areas. Today an even wider gap exists between rich and poor, and between white Americans and black Americans. MLK’s legacy is one that drives us to be relentless in our pursuit of justice for all.”
This year on MLK’s birthday, Rebuild the Dream plans to host more than 100 meet-ups in 17 states across the country to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy. As the only national holiday that recognizes social justice, the organization hopes celebrating King and the Civil Rights Movement will inspire the ongoing fight for equality.
Joe Hicks, the Vice President of Community Advocates, Inc., fought with King during the Civil Rights Movement. As a respected leader, he headed Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles for many years. Hicks believes King so indisputably enhanced the course of the nation that a holiday should be dedicated to solely him.
“A national holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, a holiday that recognized the contributions made by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., not only to the nation, but to all of its citizens regardless of skin color,” Hicks told theGrio. “The stature achieved by Dr. King as a civil rights leader is noted by the national holiday, a respect and admiration which has never been bestowed on a man recognized by some as a Civil War legend — General Robert E. Lee.”
Hicks says Lee’s hero status for his role in America’s only domestic war is recognized by Southern aficionados of the Civil War in celebrations divorced from the bigoted attitudes of Lee’s era. For him, this is hardly an excuse to infringe on MLK’s day.
“It’s kind of pathetic that some folks are still looking to compare and contrast Lee with MLK and say they we should celebrate him as well,” Hicks said. Still, he is prepared to believe that a fair amount of people are not combining the holidays for racist reasons, but as “a celebration of a whole culture and the southern way of life.”
“The argument [Lee enthusiasts] make is that this has nothing to do with the [Confederate] flag or deep seated hatred towards blacks,” Hicks continued.
Yet, “The fact that the regional recognition of General Lee’s life and exploits [is trumped] nationally by a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King makes a powerful statement about who’s worldview the nation honors and respects, and who’s views are admired only at the margins of our society by a relatively small number of people,” Hicks concluded.
Those contacted by theGrio to explain their support of combing the celebration of Lee and King’s birthdays refused to comment on the issue.