In some Southern states, this week’s holiday wasn’t just for MLK

Yesterday was a national holiday in the United States, with a federally recognized day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. But as The Washington Post noted, in a pair of Southern states, the legendary civil rights visionary wasn’t the only one being celebrated.

As the country celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, two states will observe a different holiday: King-Lee Day, which commemorates both King and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The two men’s birthdays fall just four days apart, but their legacies couldn’t be more different. King gave his life to the cause of racial equality; Lee fought in the Civil War to keep Black people enslaved. Nonetheless, Mississippi and Alabama will both mark King-Lee Day as a state holiday.

If there’s a persuasive defense for such a dual holiday, I can’t think of it. King championed the cause of justice and equality; Lee helped lead a deadly rebellion against the United States on behalf of slave owners.

We are 158 years removed from the Civil War. The fact that Alabama and Mississippi have an official King-Lee Day holiday is more than a little bewildering.

But what also stood out in the Post’s report is how other states in the region deal with the same issue:

  • Arkansas abandoned King-Lee Day in 2018, but it still proclaims the second Saturday in October a “memorial day” for Lee.
  • Florida still has state laws recognizing Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as holidays.
  • North Carolina still marks Lee’s birthday as an official state holiday.
  • Virginia observed Lee-Jackson-King Day, adding Confederate general Stonewall Jackson into the mix, until 2000.
  • Texas still celebrates Confederate Heroes Day on Lee’s birthday.

Lewis V. Baldwin, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, and an author of several books on King, told the Post, “The fact that both [King and Lee] are celebrated on the same day speaks to what I call an ambivalent South, a South that says one thing and actually practices another.”

What I can’t help but wonder is how long into the future this will continue. Will Mississippi and Alabama continue to celebrate King-Lee Day as a state holiday a generation from now? Two generations? Ten?