‘Conflicting’ US holidays reflect struggle with racism

Civil rights icon and Confederate general are being celebrated on the same day, signaling lingering effects of slavery.

Martin Luther King Jr Day holiday plans
The national holiday in memory of Martin Luther King occurs every year on the third Monday of January [ERIK S. LESSER/EPA]

It is perhaps one of the best examples of the deep racial divide in the United States and the lingering effects of slavery that continue to shackle parts of the country.

On Monday, people in three states will take a holiday to celebrate two very different figures in US history.

Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama will honour the birthdays of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King and Confederate General Robert E Lee on the same day.

King’s actual birthday is on January 15 and the national holiday in his name occurs every year on the third Monday of January.

General Lee was born on January 19. In Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, the state holiday celebrating his birth also occurs on the third Monday of January.


That has upset a lot of people.

“It’s insulting,” says Dale Charles, Arkansas President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

For years, Charles has been at the forefront of an effort to get Arkansas to separate the holidays. So far, they have been unsuccessful. But they now have a powerful ally in the state’s governor and are hopeful change will come.

‘Racially divisive’

General Lee commanded the secessionist Confederate Army from 1861-1865 in the American Civil War. Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama all sided with the Confederacy.

Many people associate Lee with racism since he and his military fought unsuccessfully to preserve the institution of slavery.

Still, many white people in southern states take pride in their Confederate heritage and have struggled to keep its symbols, like the battle flag, and its leaders in the public eye.

Race in the US: Know your history

But for many African Americans, like Charles, General Lee is a representation of the “ugliest of acts” and linking him to King – someone who stood for the exact opposite of everything Lee did – reflects a deep denial within Arkansas over its racist past.

“How can you hold onto this and pray to Almighty God?” asks Charles.

In January 2015, an Arkansas state committee introduced a bill to separate the two dates.

Nate Bell, a white former police officer and state representative, was one of the people who championed the cause.

“General Lee was a good man who chose his state over the federal government,” Bell tells Al Jazeera.

But putting the two holidays together is “racially divisive” which is why he got involved in the effort to make the change.

Bell faced threats and angry opposition, even moving his family heirlooms out of his house after he received anonymous messages it would be burned down – a haunting reminder of the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s when activists received similar warnings.

Does he think his state has a race problem? “I don’t believe so,” says Bell.

His bill was voted down in committee largely due to vocal opposition from white, pro-Confederacy groups.

“This isn’t just about history,” says Robert Miller, chairman of the Arkansas branch of the League of the South, one of the groups that opposed the bill.

“It’s an attack on the southern people themselves.”

Miller thinks efforts to change the holiday are part of a broader campaign of “cultural genocide” against southerners referring to General Lee as one of the “Godliest and most humane men”. He believes any change is an attempt to eliminate official celebration of Lee’s birthday.

In June, the momentum began to swing the other way after a white man gunned down nine African Americans at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.

READ MORE: What will it take to change the US gun culture?

Dylann Roof, the alleged shooter, is now awaiting trial and faces the death penalty. Photos on social media showed Roof posing in front of the Confederate flag, igniting a national debate about the country’s racist past.

In Arkansas, that meant addressing the holidays.

“The acts of violence in Charleston have sparked national debate on numerous issues,” wrote Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to Dale Charles less than a month after the massacre.

“As Governor, I will do what is in my power to strive for an exclusive Martin Luther King Jr Day”.

He renewed his pledge this month in front of reporters.

JR Davis, the Governor’s spokesman, told Al Jazeera that under the rules of the Arkansas state legislature, a new bill cannοt be introduced until 2017.

He is confident it will have much more support this time and that having the holidays on the same day “sends the wrong message”. Groups like the League of the South and Sons of Confederate Veterans have vowed to fight any new measure. 

Davis would not say whether the Governor would support a separate state holiday for General Lee if the two are eventually separated. “I haven’t spoken to him about that directly,” he says.

But Charles is pretty clear on the subject. There should not be an official holiday for Lee at all. “I would be ashamed to own it,” he says of those who back it.

Source: Al Jazeera