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?