As the country celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, two states will observe a different holiday: King-Lee Day, which commemorates both King and Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
The two men’s birthdays fall just four days apart, but their legacies couldn’t be more different. King gave his life to the cause of racial equality; Lee fought in the Civil War to keep Black people enslaved.
Nonetheless, Mississippi and Alabama will both mark King-Lee Day as a state holiday. Until recently, they had company: Arkansas celebrated King-Lee Day until 2018, and Virginia observed Lee-Jackson-King Day, also honoring Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, until 2000. (Virginia subsequently observed a separate Lee-Jackson Day the Friday before MLK Day until 2021.) Texas still celebrates Confederate Heroes Day on Lee’s actual birthday, Jan. 19, and its state employees can take a paid holiday on both days.
For many Black Southerners, these holidays are part of a broader effort to glorify the Confederacy, 158 years after its secessionist war effort went down in defeat.
As a high school student in Tunica, Miss., Arielle Hudson remembers reading state history textbooks in her Mississippi studies class that cited states’ rights as the Civil War’s only cause.
“There was no mention of slavery anywhere,” said Hudson, who is Black and attended public school in a district that is more than 95 percent Black, in a northwestern Mississippi county whose education system remains largely segregated.
To the 25-year-old law student, who as a University of Mississippi undergraduate fought successfully in 2020 to remove a Confederate statue from a prominent campus spot, these textbooks glorified “Lost Cause” mythology — the false idea that the Confederacy had a heroic mission in the Civil War unrelated to preserving slavery. This mythology, she said, is part of what has preserved Mississippi’s celebration of King-Lee Day.
King was born on Jan. 15, 1929; Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807. Supporters of the joint recognition “usually argue that it is a practical way to celebrate two individuals’ lives who are important in the Deep South,” said John Giggie, an associate history professor and director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.
“The whole purpose of the Civil War was to say that there were two different visions of this country and they were incompatible,” said Clayborne Carson, the Martin Luther King, Jr. centennial professor emeritus of history at Stanford University. “What King represented was an effort to heal that breach.”