Is it time to end Lee-Jackson Day?

As the country prepares to celebrate the legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some have called for the abolition of a holiday honoring Confederate military leaders in Virginia. 

Courtesy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Virginia
Lee-Jackson Day celebrations in Lexington, Va.

In the months after a shooting at an Charleston, S.C. Baptist church left nine African-American parishioners dead at the hands of a white supremacist, a systematic dismantling of Confederate symbols has swept across the South, from the removal of Confederate battle flags from public land and universities to the mothballing of statues.

Now, in the lead up to the federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday Monday, some say it's time to end Lee-Jackson Day, a Virginia holiday honoring two Confederate Army generals.

But for those who say that they are a necessary reflection of Southern pride and a celebration of history, abolishing these traditions is seen as political correctness run amok.

Often celebrated as part of a four-day weekend, Lee-Jackson Day honors Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-1863). Observation of Lee's birthday, Jan. 19, began around 1889. Jackson's remembrance was added to the holiday in 1904. Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday on January 15 in 1983.

In Virginia, the holidays were merged as Lee-Jackson-King Day until 2000 when they became separate holidays. It was arranged so that Lee-Jackson Day was to be held on the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. But several state municipalities have stopped observing the holiday, including Richmond, Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Hampton, Lynchburg, and Norfolk.

Celebrations often include parades, Civil War battle reenactments, and memorial services.

Activist Michael J. Muhammad of Norfolk, Virginia, will be holding a rally titled Forward Peace: March Against Violence in honor of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., on Saturday.

“The fact that the MLK holiday run-up is being upstaged, polluted and degraded, by the Lee-Jackson Holiday is not lost on me,” Mr. Muhammad says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “There is a need to expose that. Because the position of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is diametrically opposed to that of Dr. King.”

Muhammad adds, “With the Confederate Flag coming down in South Carolina and other states and off the license plates here in Virginia to continue the recognition of that Confederate history and its effort to maintain slavery is unconscionable that we would continue to honor such a storied negative history.”

“This is identity politics. It’s a terribly divisive thing that’s happening here,” Ben Jones, spokesperson for The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) says in a Monitor interview. “After they remove every school name, every street name, every monument, and every affectionate reference to the South and its leaders from history it’s presentism, its cultural cleansing. It’s fascism is what that is.”

“Lee freed his slaves who were his wife’s slaves,” he adds. “Stonewall Jackson started a Sunday school in Lexington for black people and it was against the law and he did it. But these things get lost in history.”

Muhammad disagrees. "We as a people suffer under post-traumatic stress from what is recorded as the most traumatic event in the annals of history,” he says referring to a book by Dr. Joy DeGruy. “The trauma coming out of that has caused us to see ourselves as [suffering from] Stockholm syndrome – impassioned and in love with our captors and hateful of ourselves. The symptoms of that spill over in violence. We are more interested in a day off of work than eradicating this holiday. We are lambs led to the cultural slaughter.”

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