Some States Celebrate MLK Day and Robert E. Lee’s Birthday on the Same Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. has been celebrated on the third Monday in January since the federal holiday was first observed in 1986

Some states still celebrate the birthdays of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the same day. Lee: Levin C. Handy, Library of Congress; King: Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee were born 122 years, four days and an ideological world apart.

Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. Since being signed into law by President Reagan in 1983, Martin Luther King Day has been celebrated on the third Monday of January, close to his birthday — which means, in states that celebrate Lee’s birthday, these two very different men are honored on the same day. In Alabama and Arkansas this year, for instance, both names appear on the states' holiday calendars.

The culprit for this intersection: Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday celebrated across the country, while Robert E. Lee’s birthday is only celebrated in some states that were part of the Confederate South. Only three states — Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi — continue to celebrate the two on the same day.

Convenience is the main reason that the two days became linked in the first place, Jamelle Bouie writes for Slate. “In states that commemorated Lee, lawmakers who approved of MLK Day didn’t want to create two holidays in January,” he writes. So they combined the two days. “As a concept,” he writes, “it was a poor pairing. As a bureaucratic solution, it worked.”

The fact that a Confederate general who “led the army of the states defending slavery and after the Civil War fought to keep black people from voting” is remembered on the same day as civil rights leader Martin Luther King hasn’t gone unnoticed, writes Olivia Becker for Vice.  

In Arkansas this time last year, it seemed like MLK-Lee day might be celebrated for the last time, as lawmakers voted whether or not to pass a bill that would have moved the celebration of Lee to a separate day, she writes. It didn’t pass — the second time in recent years that such a measure failed, writes Steve Barnes for Reuters.

A Democrat who voted against the bill told Barnes that Robert E. Lee Day was still very important to his constituents and he wanted to act in their interests.  Conservative southerners are worried that Lee, an important historical figure in a place where the Civil War remains significant, would be forgotten if the holiday was moved, he writes.

“As a Virginian, I understand the drive to praise Lee,” Bouie writes. “His honor is an undeniable and worthy quality. But we shouldn’t forget what Lee fought for. Not for freedom or for liberty, but for perpetual bondage and a South that forever held its black citizens as slaves and servants.”  

In 1990, Ira Berkow, writing for The New York Times, noted the irony. At that time, five states combined MLK and Robert E. Lee’s celebrations, although Virginia and North Carolina no longer do so.

At least one state has stopped celebrating Robert E. Lee at all, writes Leada Gore for Georgia's holiday calendar notes that January 19 is a "state holiday," albeit one observed on the day after Thanksgiving

This year may be the year that Arkansas finally splits the two days, writes Emma Pettit for Arkansas Online. State governor Asa Hutchinson, who also pushed for the two days’ separation in 2016, has said that a split is a top priority.  

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