Sunday, January 22, 2023

Dishonoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week the country honored the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, lamenting his tragically shortened life and yet unfulfilled promise of racial equity. The same day as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Alabama and Mississippi memorialized Robert E. Lee’s birthday, state holidays dating from the late 1800s.

Perhaps a Robert E. Lee holiday in the decades post-Reconstruction, when the South was building Jim Crow to undermine the outcome of the Civil War, is understandable. By the 1960s, however, these Confederate celebrations were clearly antithetical to the values of racial equity raised by the Civil Rights movement, hopefully mirrored in the social evolution of the country.

Yet the Robert E. Lee holidays have remained on the calendar, incredibly paired with the MLK holiday in Alabama and Mississippi since it started in 1986. Alabama’s governor and legislature don’t seem bothered by the contradictory values, content to quietly honor the legacy of the Civil War and slavery.

As a new resident of Alabama, I’m appalled by the dissonance, which prompted a letter to the governor:

Dear Governor Ivey,

Before moving to Alabama a year ago, I was curious how I would find the state addressing its history of slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. I’ve found some hopeful signs, such as the effort to amend the state constitution to delete racist language. However, I’m appalled that the state has a holiday memorializing Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Even worse, it’s the same day as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday — which I interpret as a sophomoric and impudent attempt to negate the life and contributions of Rev. Dr. King.

Other than the symbolism of Jim Crow, Alabama honoring Robert E. Lee with a holiday surprises me. Lee had no tie to the state other than his military campaigns during the Civil War. Although the record shows he was conflicted by slavery, he fought to preserve it, leading many Confederate soldiers to their deaths under his command.

For Alabama to honor Lee and his legacy with a holiday is inconsistent with reconciling the state’s lamentable racial history. I urge you to use your last term as governor to remove this annual commemoration of the state’s racist past. You have the opportunity to articulate a vision of racial equity that respects all of Alabama’s citizens.


Gary Lerude

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