Robert E. Lee (commander-in-chief of the Confederate Army) was born on January 19, 1807. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Confederate general) was born on January 21, 1824. Martin Luther King Jr. (leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement) was born on January 15, 1929. Although it may seem like a contradiction, some southern states commemorate these men’s birthdays at the same time.
Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas honor both Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr. with a shared holiday on the third Monday of January, the day most other states — and the federal government — celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Virginia is the only state to observe both Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a federal holiday), and Lee-Jackson Day (a state holiday on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day).
Lee and Jackson may have been on the wrong side during the Civil War, but they were both devout Christians of respectable character. “Lee freed his slaves who were his wife’s slaves,” said Ben Jones, spokesperson for Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Stonewall Jackson started a Sunday school in Lexington for black people and it was against the law and he did it.” An editorial in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette admits that “Lee was a great leader of men, a man of honor and dedication to his state.” (Back in those days, they took state’s rights seriously as do some states today.)
Martin Luther King Jr., an American Baptist minister, was originally skeptical of Christianity but later concluded that the Bible has “many profound truths which one cannot escape.” He was no saint, however, as it was well-known that he was unfaithful to his wife, and numerous portions of his PhD dissertation were found to have been plagiarized. He used Christianity as a springboard for his social gospel, and is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience.
Due to a shift in American attitudes toward Confederate icons over the past year, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has called for the state to no longer honor General Robert E. Lee on the same day as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying those holidays should be “distinguished and separate.” Others argue that this is just another example of “political correctness run amok.”
Discussion/Essay Question: Do you think it is appropriate to remember one or more leaders who fought against the Union and opposed black suffrage, on the same day as a civil rights leader who wanted to unite Americans of all races? Why or why not?