Happy Robert E. Lee Day!

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Every state celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but not every state celebrates it the same way. In New Hampshire, King’s birthday is “Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day,” an explicit celebration of the entire civil rights movement (and a compromise with lawmakers who didn’t want a day devoted to King alone). In Idaho, it’s “Martin Luther King, Jr.–Idaho Human Rights Day,” a celebration of justice writ large. And in three states—Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi—MLK Day is also Robert E. Lee Day.

This isn’t a different Robert E. Lee—some forgotten crusader for human equality. No, this is the Gen. Robert E. Lee who led Confederate armies in war against the United States, who defended a nation built on the “great truth” that the “negro is not equal to the white man,” and whose armies kidnapped and sold free black Americanswhenever they had the opportunity.

Despite his betrayal of the Union (a stark contrast to fellow Virginian Winfield Scott, who refused to join the Confederacy) and his treatment of enslaved black Americans—as a slavedriver, he sold children and oversaw brutal punishments, including sewing brine into the wounds of returned fugitives—Lee’s popular image is of an honorable and decent man who fought well and loathed slavery. (The former is debatable and the latter is true, in that Lee thought slaveholding a burdensome occupation.)




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