All across the country, the first three-day weekend of the new year is thanks to the celebration of perhaps the most famous civil rights leader of all time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the South, it isn’t that simple. On the same day as MLK Day, Alabama and Mississippi honor Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who at a glance represents the antithesis of what King fought for.
In a way, these overlapping holidays are a summation of the South’s deep-rooted ties to both a history of racism and the forefront of the civil rights movement.
MLK Day became a federal holiday in 1983 after President Reagan, who’d opposed the bill for years, signed it into law. For six Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia — this infringed upon the observance of Robert E. Lee Day. Alabama, in particular, had celebrated the general’s birthday since the 1890s. So, instead of losing more revenue on two separate holidays, the two historical figures with birthdays four days apart got lumped together.
Times change, and eventually, it becomes less of a good idea to celebrate the legacy of a proponent of the deadliest opposition America has ever faced and a symbol of oppression for a large portion of the population. Florida realized this. While you can still find Robert E. Lee Day on their official list of holidays, they no longer recognize it. The same for North Carolina and Lee’s home state of Virginia.
In 2017, Arkansas decided to remove the holiday and instead turned it into a memorial day in October, away from King’s celebration.
Alabama and Mississippi didn’t take the hint.
Now, there’s a section of the state that argues for keeping Lee’s birthday as a holiday. It’s impossible to tell the history of both Alabama and the South without bringing up the Civil War in some context.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
People feel threatened that by removing this holiday, there will be a continued movement to erase other relics of the Confederacy. Rebel flags are baked into Southern identity.
However, removing this holiday wouldn’t diminish the past. Using a day to celebrate the legacy of a man who isn’t from this state and advocated against black people’s voting rights for years after the Civil War ended, a core principle that opposes what King dreamed of.
To honor Lee on the same day as King is a slap in the face. It belittles what he meant to the country. Lee fundamentally contributed to the basis of oppression that King fought hard against. This is part of the reason why last year, an online petition in Alabama gained 20,000 signatures to end this congruent practice.
King is not only an American icon — he is an Alabama one. This is a man who preached in Montgomery churches and brought national attention to the racial injustices going on in the state. Some of his most significant moments happened here with “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and the Montgomery bus boycotts. Although he was born in Georgia, King was, in many aspects, an Alabama man.
So rather than disrespecting a true hero to this state, we should stop honoring a person that caused pain that many citizens still feel remnants of today. And besides, this is America. When have we ever celebrated losers?
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman