Why King-Lee Day in Alabama is a Distraction
On Monday the outrage machine was in full force on social media, especially Twitter. It happens every year in January on the day that Alabama and Mississippi set aside to celebrate the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee. They are the only two states that continue to do so, but they are not the only two that honor Confederate leaders on the state calendar throughout the year.
Even I got in on the action. I wish I hadn’t. I suspect that for most people it’s just another opportunity to poke fun at the ‘backwards South’ and in the laziest way possible signal that they are on the right side of history. How many people have taken the time to look closely at their own local history and/or commemorative landscape?
Don’t get me wrong. Any state that sets aside a day to honor anything having to do with the Confederacy deserves our reproach. In the case of Alabama and Mississippi there is something obscene in this extreme example of a false equivalency that raises a man who led armies against the United States in order to create a slaveholding republic to the same level as a champion of civil rights.
The public celebration of Robert E. Lee’s birthday can be traced back to the early twentieth century in many former Confederate states. The addition of King’s birthday happened gradually in most states, beginning in the 1980s. It should come as no surprise that King would be paired with Lee and that this unfortunate marriage would remain the status quo in some states all these years later, but much has changed in the South related to how the past is remembered and commemorated in public and private spaces.
I’ve been thinking about this as I prepare to lead a group on a civil rights tour of Alabama at the end of the month. With our home base in downtown Montgomery we will have plenty of opportunity to explore not only the history of civil rights in the state’s capital, but also how its commemorative landscape has changed in recent years.
And in the years that I have led this trip it has changed dramatically.
The Rosa Parks Museum (2000) and Freedom Riders Museum (2011) now tell the story of key moments during the civil rights era. One of my favorite historic sites/museums is the Dexter Parsonage Museum, where King lived during his time at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The National Park Service now has a presence in the city, where it tells the story of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
One of the most popular sites is EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice (2018)—in my mind one of the most significant commemorative sites in the entire country. I am at a loss for words every time I walk through the lynching memorial.
New roadside markers line the streets that tell the story of civil rights, slavery, and the displacement of Native Americans.
This just scratches the surface in and around Montgomery and throughout the rest of the state.
All of this sits uncomfortably alongside the city’s numerous sites that commemorate the Confederacy. A massive Confederate monument is located next to the state capitol building, while a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis stands on the capitol steps, where he took his oath of office in 1861.
The First White House of the Confederacy—a state funded “museum”—is located next to the capitol building.
It can be bewildering and frustrating for visitors, but it also presents opportunities to have the difficult conversations about our ever changing commemorative landscapes and what we hope to achieve by using our public spaces to remember the past.
If there is some satisfaction at poking a finger in the direction of Alabama, it comes at the price of losing sight of a much more dynamic and interesting story that I believe bodes well for the future.
I have little doubt that the honoring of Confederate leaders on the state calendars in Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere will end at some point, but that is only because of the hard work and change that has and continues to take place.
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