Bust out your Civil War bugles and start whistling Dixie, because it’s Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama.
The official state holiday is one of three Alabama celebrates related to the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s birthday is observed on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.’s in January, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ birthday is observed on the first Monday in June.
Alabama isn’t alone in its celebration. It has Mississippi, which more progressive residents of the state often sardonically thank, for company. (Mississippi will celebrate its memorial day next Monday.) Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia also have unofficial celebrations.
According to AL.com, the largest news source in the state, the celebration dates back to 1866 when the Ladies Memorial Association in Columbus, Georgia, resolved to mark a day to honor Confederate soldiers who died in battle. At the time, well-heeled women of the South were spearheading a campaign to create the myth of the Lost Cause, setting up memorials, sprucing up Confederate cemeteries, and papering over the until-then overt motive of preserving slavery. Their campaign was successful. The language and symbols they used persist in holidays, societies, and memorials established to honor the Confederacy, the defenders of which maintain that they represent the South’s history and culture, borrowing the Southern identity arguments made in the 19th century.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, the state’s second female governor (the first was Lurleen Wallace, a stand-in for her husband, segregationist George Wallace, who had run up against term limits and could no longer run) and the replacement for Robert Bentley, who resigned a year ago over a sex scandal, has appeared to commit to that language as a political tool in her campaign for the governor’s office. In a recent ad, Ivey blasted “folks in Washington” and “out-of-state liberals” for trying to tell the state what to do. “Up in Washington, they always know better,” she says. “Politically correct nonsense, I say.”
In the ad, she defends a state law, the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which she signed last year. The law requires state permission for the alteration or renaming of buildings and monuments 40 years or older. It doesn’t explicitly state it is meant to apply to Confederate memorials, but few have any misconceptions about its intended purpose.
“The numerous issues that Ivey could have included in her ad, such as better education system, improved health care, reduction of crime, a fairer criminal justice system and she chose the one thing that divides Alabamians perhaps more than anything else,” the NAACP said in a statement. The NAACP argued that the “special interests” she attacked in the ad don’t want to tear down the monuments but instead move them into museums where Confederate generals are contextualized, not lionized.
But against these obstacles, some parts of Alabama are seeing evidence of resistance to the Confederate imagery in the state. Two months after the monument law was passed, and in the aftermath of the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the city of Birmingham’s mayor ordered a confederate monument be covered in plastic and, later, plywood, while the city’s lawyers explored legal options. Alabama’s attorney general’s office sued the city, and the city and state have been locked in a legal battle since.
On Thursday, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its accompanying museum, both of which are dedicated to documenting racism and racial inequality in America’s history and present, will open in Montgomery. The site includes a memorial to 4,400 black victims of lynching. Its two-day summit marking the opening of the site and featuring national figures such as Congressman John Lewis and former Vice President Al Gore will be followed by a concert featuring Common, Usher, the Dave Matthews Band, and the Roots. Ivey was not invited.
Some Alabamians, urged on by the state’s most powerful figures, will commemorate the holiday by trying to preserve symbols of white supremacy. To others, the official endorsement of the day is a dispiriting reminder of the Lost Cause myth’s stranglehold on state institutions.