M.L.K. and R.E. Lee

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Many Arkansans may not realize it, but the state celebrates two birthdays on the third Monday each January – Dr. Martin Luther King’s, and General Robert E. Lee’s. And that caught some people’s attention this week.

Arkansas has celebrated the two men together since 1985 as a result of an act signed by Gov. Bill Clinton. The combination was done out of convenience. Lee’s birthday, which is Jan. 19 (four days after King’s), was already being celebrated, and there were already so many holidays this time of year. As always, the secretary of state on Monday posted a sign on the State Capitol’s doors stating that offices were closed in honor of the two men.

Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also celebrate the two birthdays on the same day. Three other states also honor Lee, but not on the same day as King. Virginia, Lee’s home, separated them in 2000.

Arkansas’ dual holiday has become an issue this year, which happens to be 150 years after the end of the Civil War. Jason Tolbert, a contributor to the website Talk Business & Politics, pointed out the historical inconsistency of honoring King and the Confederate general on the same day. Secretary of State Mark Martin told Tolbert that his having to put both names on the same sign is “embarrassing to me.”

I caught Martin in the halls of the Capitol and asked if the word “embarrassing” was accurate. Yes, he said. Lee had many admirable qualities, but combining the holidays seems inappropriate.

On Wednesday, Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, who is African-American, and Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, who is white, filed separate bills that would remove Lee from the holiday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, his plate full during his first month in office, didn’t state a position when asked about it in a press conference.

Maybe this is much ado about nothing. Let’s be honest – many of us didn’t really honor either King or Lee Monday. For many of us who happened to work for the right employers, it was just a day off.

But the King-Lee holiday is not really about two men. As celebrated today, it’s a symbol of two very different eras – the Confederacy and the civil rights movement. The first should be remembered thoughtfully, and the second should be celebrated thoughtfully. There’s a difference.

The Civil War was not that long ago, and native-born white Arkansans my age grew up with the sense that “we” lost. Many years ago, I stopped having that sense.

If you think the war was not about slavery, then I’m not going to change your mind. Instead, I encourage you to research those who would know best – those who voted to secede.

Pay particular attention to Mississippi’s declaration of secession, a short document available online. Slavery was the secessionists’ justification for the war. The second paragraph begins, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.”

The secessionists said the Union “advocates negro equality” and that it was trying to “destroy our social system.” “We must either submit to degradation,” they declared, “and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property.”


Regardless of who lost the Civil War, ultimately, for many different reasons and over a long period of time, freedom won.

Isn’t that what should be celebrated on the third Monday of every January?

17 thoughts on “M.L.K. and R.E. Lee

  1. A couple of points:

    1. It wasn’t technically a “civil war” as the Confederacy was not attempting to take over the government in Washington.

    2. I find it interesting that just about all other nations, such as Great Britain, ended slavery without a massive war being required.

  2. A very good movie about the ending of slavery in Great Britain is the 2006 film, “Amazing Grace”, starring Ioan Gruffudd.

  3. It was at least dependent enough that when slavery was ended in Great Britain that the government reimbursed slaveholders for the economic loss from losing their slaves – £20 million which is £70 billion today.

  4. Good word Steve. The cynic in me has felt like the combining of the two holidays was a subtle way for those who didn’t want to acknowledge Dr King’s birthday and place in history to make a statement without being accused of racism … A charge that can’t be proven without seeing the heart.

  5. Great column, Steve! I had forgotten that Arkansas did this… or perhaps blocked it out of my memory.

    Growing up in the south as a Civil War buff I was always a bit bewildered by the reverence for Lee all over the south (note Washington and Lee University in VA… named after a founding father of the United States and the most successful general to lead troops in an effort to secede from those United States). Whatever personal qualities Lee might have had, at the end of the day, had he been a bit better as a general, the southern states would have successfully seceded, which would likely have set off a pattern of further Balkanization, and slavery would have existed for at least another generation in some parts of the US. MLK’s legacy is far less ambiguous. He helped the US to ‘live out the true meaning of its creed’ (to borrow his phrase)… Lee, whatever his personal beliefs may have been, ultimately fought to keep people in chains and break away from the US. And they’re honored on the same day in 3 states… depressing.

  6. Thanks, Adam. Lee fought on the side that favored slavery and took up arms against the United States. He may have been a good man, but he is not one of the greatest Americans.

  7. “So why did Lee become the most famous Confederate general of the American Civil War? In a letter written by Lee to his son in early 1861, it is clear that he had no time for the Confederacy: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” However, when pressed, Lee did admit that he would take up arms to defend Virginia. When Virginia seceded from the Union, it became obvious and clear to Lee that he would become involved in a military campaign against his own state. He asked the head of the US Army, Winfield Scott, if he could stay at home for the duration of the war. Not surprisingly, Scott refused such a request.

    As a result, Lee resigned his commission in the US Army on April 20th 1861 and took command of the forces in Virginia on April 23rd 1861.”


  8. ” The commanding general of the Union Army, Winfield Scott, told Lincoln he wanted Lee for a top command. Lee accepted a promotion to colonel on March 28.[72] He had earlier been asked by one of his lieutenants if he intended to fight for the Confederacy or the Union, to which Lee replied, “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” Meanwhile, Lee ignored an offer of command from the CSA. After Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion, it was obvious that Virginia would quickly secede. Lee on April 18 was offered by presidential advisor Francis P. Blair a role as major general to command the defense of Washington. He replied:

    “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” ”


  9. Folks need to remember that once upon a time in these United States before nationalism became all-consuming lots, if not most folks, considered themselves first and foremost a citizen of their respective states, and secondly a citizen of these United

    It would be wonderful if we could regain some of that mindset today.

  10. Thanks for sharing, Ken. That gave me a greater appreciation of the difficult choice with which Lee faced. I still would not give him his own holiday in Arkansas, but those were different times. I do agree with your last point and in fact recently wrote that we would do well to focus more on state politics and less than we do on national politics.

  11. Thanks for posting that, Ken. Of course it must have been a gut-wrenching decision for Lee, and as you rightly point out, allegiance to one’s state in those days often super-seeded other allegiances… we understand that. But at the end of the day, he decided to fight for a cause that he knew would prolong the institution of slavery and break up the US. Martin Luther King, on the other hand, used peaceful means to fight for the rights of an oppressed minority and make this a more perfect union. He died in that struggle and his memory should not be dishonored by sticking a confederate general’s birthday on the same day that people should be thinking about the very checkered racial history of these United States and the struggles and accomplishments of Dr. King.

  12. By the way, Adam, the bill failed in committee. You know, it should be pointed out that African-American legislators were not really leading the charge . One even spoke out against the bill. I think they should be separated – in fact, I wouldn’t even give Lee, a Virginian, his own holiday. But this has not been a racial crisis or anything. Not arguing with you – just giving you information.

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