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Opinion | It’s past time to stop celebrating Robert E. Lee on MLK Day

This is about giving MLK his just due, not undermining him by celebrating someone who led a competing, wrong cause.

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Good morning and happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day everybody!

Oh, and Robert E. Lee Day as well.

Today we celebrate a man who fought without violence to bring civil rights to Black men and women in America.

And another man who fought violently for a country whose cornerstone was the right to keep them enslaved.

Lee Day far outdates MLK Day in Alabama. The state has been celebrating Lee Day since the 1800s while MLK Day became a federal holiday in 1983.

Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807; King was born Jan. 15, 1929. Due to the Uniform Monday Holidays Act passed by Congress in 1968, MLK Day falls on the third Monday in January closest to his birthday. In Alabama, Lee Day also falls on the third Monday in January.

So by these happenstances comes the odd juxtaposition of two great historical leaders, who fought for two very different causes.

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There is a lot of chatter about Lee’s personal stances on slavery and secession. He is often painted here as a good man who opposed slavery but had to fight for his home state from the Yankees.

There’s some truth in there: Lee’s writings did show that he viewed slavery as a political and moral level, although he also said it was more an evil against the white man and that Black people were better off enslaved than in Africa and that subjugation would improve their race.

But this article is not really about Lee and what kind of a man he was or was not. It’s not even about the state needing to drop Robert E. Lee Day entirely, although most states have let it go.

This is about giving Martin Luther King Jr. his just due, and not undermining his importance by celebrating someone who led a competing, and wrong, cause.

For years, racist Alabamians have chosen to celebrate Lee Day on their day off instead of MLK Day. 

People post statutes that say things like “Happy Robert E. Lee Day y’all” or “Remember, this is ROBERT E LEE DAY.”

It feels like an opt-out policy for people who don’t agree with the progress that has been made and it’s obvious that people have treated it that way.

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Except in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, with the country in the grip of turmoil and rioting, I saw many of these very people suddenly invoking King’s name, calling for peaceful protest.

They don’t want to honor King until things start getting violent.

Today, Robert E. Lee still gets first billing on the state’s holiday calendar. But regardless of Lee’s historic battle strategies and leadership qualities, he is a footnote in history next to the impact that King had in propelling the country into the future.

We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. today to remember the revolution he brought to make this country a better place for all people.

We don’t need to continue to give racists an excuse to forego that honor.

Written By

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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