It took a ghastly church massacre in Charleston, S.C., last summer — a massacre perpetrated by a young racist who flaunted emblems of racial hatred and subjugation — to finally bring down the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. That should be reason enough to finally end as well the insulting practice of linking the holiday that honors Martin Luther King Jr. with a commemoration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In three Southern states — Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas — the day set aside nationally to pay tribute to the martyred civil rights leader is simultaneously designated for celebrating the life of the Confederacy’s most famous military leader. In most of the country, it would be unthinkable to honor with a holiday the general who led the war to rupture the United States and perpetuate African slavery. Yet Lee has long been revered in the South, and the red-letter day bearing his name is defended in the name of Southern heritage and as homage to a worthy man.
But “Southern heritage” is no excuse for piggy-backing Lee’s celebration onto the third Monday in January, a day reserved nationwide for remembering King and his extraordinary story. It is true that Lee’s life was being celebrated in the South long before MLK, let alone the civil rights movement, was born. Today, however, it is hard to see the dual holiday as anything but an ongoing affront to King’s legacy and the reverence it inspires.
Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, to his credit, has been trying to end the slight. Hutchinson, a Republican, is urging Arkansas lawmakers to pass a bill separating the state holiday honoring Lee from the national holiday dedicated to King. An attempt to make that change last year bogged down in a legislative committee, but Hutchinson vowed to try again after the killings in Charleston drew fresh attention to the ugly side of Confederate commemorations.
“It’s important,” Hutchinson told reporters last week, that Martin Luther King’s day be “distinguished and separate and focused on the civil rights struggle and what he personally did.”
Lee is universally regarded as a man of integrity and valor, and there is much to celebrate in his fine character. Yet at the crucial crossroads of his life, he made the choice for rebellion and slavery. Even after the Civil War was over, he publicly opposed granting freed slaves the right to vote. In the context of his time, his actions may have been defensible. By the standards of the 21st century, they are beyond the pale. That any state would still insist on adulterating the holiday on which America honors King by paying tribute to Lee is grotesque. Hutchinson is right: Arkansas should give King the undiluted honor he deserves. Mississippi and Alabama ought to do the same.