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.