On Monday, when the rest of the country takes the day off in commemoration of one of the civil rights heroes of the United States, citizens of two states will have a remarkable choice: can celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. , or you can celebrate that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In Mississippi and Alabama, those days are officially equal, and the icon of civil rights and the Confederate Army commander are held together, as two equally noble characters in American history. In Alabama, Lee gets the first billing. (Mississippi downplays Lee in official documents). The two states have celebrated Lee's birthday since the 19th century and began celebrating King's in 1983.
Many in those states that defend the decision to honor Lee with King do so by blanking Lee's actions and beliefs. By building on the myths and narrations of the Lost Cause, Lee's defenders describe him as a reluctant hero, an honorable man who only with great sadness took away the work to a sense of duty to protect his beloved South. Some will insist that he despised the institution of slavery, and others will insist that he treated his slaves with humanity. The reality, however, is this: Lee led an army, an army that made "slave hunts" of free black Americans and slaughtered black Union soldiers who tried to surrender, against the United States in an uprising for the explicit purpose of maintain the institution. of slavery. And although he was not the most ardent defender of slavery (he once wrote that slavery was a "moral and political evil", but he also complained that it was "a greater evil for the white man" and that blacks had to be enslaved to be civilized), still ordered to bad his slaves and separate families. After the war, he continued to fight against efforts to give rights to black Americans.
As offensive as it is that these two states celebrate the two men together, a decision that, as Jamelle Bouie wrote in 2015, arose out of bureaucratic convenience and a loyalty to his own state holiday as he dealt with the new mandatory federal holiday for King. of more progressive civil rights groups and residents has managed to reduce what was once a more common celebration throughout the South. In 2015, Georgia hit Robert E. Lee's birthday and Confederate Memory Day on his state calendar. Two years later, Arkansas ended its practice of celebrating a joint MLK-Robert E. Lee day, instead of moving Lee to a demoted memorial day in October. And a small movement for Alabama and Mississippi to finish their celebration of Robert E. Lee Day has gathered more than 16,000 signatures as of Friday night.
There is some reason to hope that the few remaining states will finally abandon their celebration of Lee. Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama and mostly black, managed to nullify a state law that protects the Confederate monuments after covering a monument to the soldiers and Confederate sailors. But even if King finally gets exclusive recognition on the third Monday in January, there will still be more room to go: several states stick to a Confederate Memorial Day, and Alabama remains the last state to keep its legal holiday for the birth of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
It is true that even in the states where the two figures are held together, most official statements will focus more on King. Most of the teachers will also focus the vacation-related lessons on the civil rights leader, and there will be few public events centered on Lee. But there will still be some officials, and probably some educators, who will seize the opportunity to repeat myths that are often told about a general confederate responsible for a frightful war in the name of human slavery.