This Monday, I was surprised to find that businesses were closed not only for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday but also for the birthday of Robert E. Lee.
My first reaction was to immediately assume that businesses were attempting to downplay the importance of King’s birthday by stating they were closed for the opposing holiday.
Why did I assume this? I simply believe that racial equality hasn’t been achieved yet and that some people still hold the civil rights movement today as illegitimate. This might look like a business in the South would rather celebrate a leader of the Civil War than a leader of the civil rights movement.
It seems like it’s almost more important to remember the bloodiest war in American history than to remember that as a country we are finally making amends for centuries of unequal treatment of an entire race.
Let me note that I do believe that Lee was an important historical figure who should be remembered for his leadership of the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
However, King is renowned as a civil rights leader and is a recipient of the Nobel Peace prize for his nonviolent resistance while combating racial inequality. His “I Have a Dream” speech is immortalized as a battle cry for civil rights activists.
It turns out that King’s birthday falls on the 16th of January, but Lee’s birthday isn’t until the 19th. Officially, King’s and Lee’s birthdays are both commemorated on the same day as a holiday.
The reason for this compromise is because King’s birthday is a federal holiday, but Lee’s is celebrated as a state holiday in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.
Both of these men have made incredible contributions to American history in different ways. Lee was a war hero; King was a hero of the people. Both struggled during tumultuous times in American history.
In the end, I believe celebrating both holidays on the same day detracts from each other. The reason King’s birthday is celebrated is to remember not only who he was and what he did, but also to remember the struggle for equality he fought for.
Lee fought for much different reasons in the Confederacy, which was formed in order to assert the independence of states and preserve the reliance on slavery that was the basis of the South’s economy.
As great a man as Lee was, how appropriate is it to continue to hold onto the idea that what he was fighting for was good?