Good riddance to R.E. Lee Day

MLK delivers a speech in London.
Originally published in the Batesville Daily Guard

March 23, 2017

Arkansas has finally separated Robert E. Lee Day from Martin Luther King Day and I say “good riddance.”

After all, why should Arkansans celebrate a general who was not born here, did not fight here and had little to do with the state aside from stripping it of able-bodied men and leaving nothing but old men and young boys to defend it?

Beyond all that, why should Arkansas celebrate the Confederacy at all?

Sure, many of us had ancestors who fought for it. Many of us also had ancestors the fought to end slavery and preserve the Union.

And why did the Confederacy exist? To preserve slavery and end the Union.

Slavery seems to be the sore point for many of those who celebrate the Confederacy. But the Confederacy would not have existed without it.

Sure, the war itself was fought over secession. After all, preserving the Union was the priority.

But, the secession itself was over slavery. The letters declaring secession from South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia all point at slavery as the central cause of their secession.

Here’s a very telling line from South Carolina’s, the first state to secede, letter of secession:

“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

That seems to spell things out pretty clearly and also blows the “states’ rights” argument out of the water because Southern states were trying to put a stop to Northern states from enacting anti-slavery policies, such as not returning escaped slaves.

Lee is often ballyhooed as being “really against slavery,” but he didn’t seem to have a problem living on an estate where he was served by his wife’s slaves. Also after the Civil War, he apparently didn’t think much of expanding the political rights of black Americans either.

“My own opinion is that, at this time, they [black Southerners] cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the [vote] would lead to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways,” Lee said in 1866. For the rest of his life, he would decry anything giving blacks the right to vote.

Almost 100 years later, King led a 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to the Capitol in Montgomery to advocate for equal voting rights, which black Americans were still denied in the South.

It should have been a no-brainer to separate the two men from being celebrated the same day. But the Arkansas Legislature has spent years “debating” this issue.

Protesters against desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Senate Bill 519 finally did the job. But the vote wasn’t anywhere near unanimous. In the Arkansas Senate, 24 state senators vote “yes,” zero voted “no” and 11 didn’t vote at all.

In the Arkansas House, 66 Representatives voted “yes” to separate the days. But the vote was more divisive there. Eleven representatives voted “no” and 23 did not vote at all or chose to just say “present.”

Now, this didn’t kill a day honoring Lee in the state; it simply moved it to a Saturday in October and removed its holiday status. Essentially, it means that nobody in the state will ever have to see the two men’s names together on state documents or anything else.

I’ve never heard a coherent reasoning for the two men to be celebrated on the same day. Most arguments are either try to say something about “heritage,” which seems to ignore the rest of the history of the South outside of the four years of the Civil War, or the “they get King so we should get Lee.”

Both arguments are pretty weak, especially the second if you consider that almost every birthday-holiday we have is in honor of a white, wealthy — and often slave-owning — male.

When I said “no-brainer” when it came to voting on this issue, I essentially meant that by holding the two men side by side, it should be easy to tell who fought, and lost his life in the name of freedom, which is supposed to be an American value, while the other fought for the opposite.


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