On Monday, when the rest of the country is taking the day off in commemoration of one of America’s civil rights heroes, the denizens of two states will get a remarkable choice: You 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 the same, and the civil rights icon and the commander of the Confederate army are celebrated jointly, as two equally noble characters of American history. In Alabama, Lee gets first billing. (Mississippi downplays Lee in official documents). The two states have celebrated Lee’s birthday since the 1800s and began celebrating King’s in 1983.
Many in those states who defend the decision to honor Lee with King do so by whitewashing Lee’s actions and beliefs. In building upon Lost Cause myths and narratives, Lee’s defenders portray him as a reluctant hero, an honorable man who only with a heavy sadness took the job out of a sense of duty to protect his beloved South. Some will insist that he despised the institution of slavery, and others will emphasize he treated his slaves humanely. The reality, though, is this: Lee led an army—an army that conducted “slave hunts” of free black Americans and massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender—against the United States in an uprising for the explicit purpose of maintaining the institution of slavery. And while he was not the most ardent defender of slavery (he once wrote that slavery was a “moral & political evil” but also complained it was “a greater evil to the white man” and that black people needed to be enslaved in order to become civilized), he still ordered his slaves whipped and families separated. After the war, he continued to fight against efforts to give black Americans rights.
As offensive as it is that these two states celebrate the two men together—a decision that, as Jamelle Bouie wrote in 2015, came about out of bureaucratic convenience and a loyalty to their own state holiday in dealing with the new federally mandated holiday for King—pressure from civil rights groups and more progressive residents has successfully narrowed what was once a more common celebration across the South. In 2015, Georgia struck both Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day from its state calendar. Two years later, Arkansas ended its practice of celebrating a joint MLK-Robert E. Lee day, instead moving Lee to a downgraded memorial day in October. There have been small movement to have Alabama and Mississippi end their celebration of Robert E. Lee Day, but none of these efforts has succeeded.
There’s some reason to hope that the remaining few states will eventually abandon their celebration of Lee. Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama and a majority black one, fought a state law protecting Confederate monuments. (The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the state law in November 2019 and hit Birmingham with a $25,000 fine.) But even if King does eventually get sole recognition on the third Monday of January, there will still be more room to go: Several states stick to a Confederate Memorial Day, and Alabama remains the last state to hold onto its legal holiday for the birth of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
It’s true that even in the states where the two figures are celebrated together, most official statements will still focus more on King. Most teachers will focus holiday-related lessons on the civil rights leader as well, and there will be few Lee-focused public events. But there will still be some officials, and likely some educators, who will take the opportunity to repeat myths so often told about a confederate general responsible for a gruesome war in the name of human bondage.
This post was originally published in 2019 and updated in 2020 with the latest information on the states that celebrate both King and Lee.