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Separating the Lee-Jackson holiday from that honoring Martin Luther King is a mistake.

"One Nation Indivisible"


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It's my favorite "You're Very Richmond If ." winner: "You're very Richmond if you think there really was a person named Lee Jackson King." It looks like no one will ever be that confused again.

Gov. Jim Gilmore and just about everybody in the General Assembly were for it, but I still think it's a mistake. The Virginia Senate voted 38-0 to break the commonwealth's Lee-Jackson-King Day into two holidays: one to be shared by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; the other for Martin Luther King Jr. to have all to himself. The House of Delegates did the same thing last month. Gilmore promoted the idea in his State of the Commonwealth Address.

A lot of people have thought for a long time that it is odd, if not offensive, to have a holiday that honors two Confederate generals and the man generally accepted to be the greatest American civil rights leader of the 20th century. I'm not one of those people. I've always thought the day was an annual missed opportunity, a chance to promote unity and the kind of outside-the-lines kind of thinking this country needs.

As I see it, every Lee-Jackson-King Day is a chance to talk about courage and sacrifice and duty and honor and reconciliation. It's a chance to show that human greatness and human frailties can — and often do — coexist in the same human body.

Robert E. Lee was born to privilege. He had an opportunity, just as the Civil War was beginning, to rise to the loftiest post an American military officer could aspire to. He had a chance to take command of the whole United States Army. But that would have meant invading his homeland, Virginia, and leading soldiers into battle against his kin and against people he regarded as his countrymen.

Lee turned down the honor and rank Abraham Lincoln offered him, resigned his commission and threw away his career because he thought it was the honorable thing to do. Lee left the United States saying he would never draw his sword again except in defense of his native land.

He did, of course, draw his sword again. He led troops in defense of Virginia and against the United States.

When the war was over, he went to work for reconstruction and reconciliation. In his last order to his troops, Lee encouraged them to put the devotion they had shown him and the Confederacy toward the challenge of rebuilding and reuniting the United States.

Lee never wrote his memoirs, saying that doing so would have been profiting from the blood of his men. He turned down a plea that he lead the original Ku Klux Klan.

Lee had reason to be bitter in the years after the war. Not only was he stripped of the rights of citizenship, he was stripped of his home. That stately mansion on the hill in Arlington National Cemetery was Lee's house. Confiscating his house and burying Union dead in his yard was calculated not only to harm Lee, but also to humiliate him.

Legend has it that after the war, while Lee was president of Lexington's Washington College (now Washington & Lee University), a woman brought her infant son to Lee asking what she should teach the child.

"To do his duty," Lee is supposed to have said.

Yet, Lee was a slaveholder and he fought to preserve a country that would have preserved slavery.

Jackson was a slaveholder, too. But he was also a deeply religious man who organized a Sunday school for slaves. While he was away from home during the war, he wrote letters inquiring about how classes were going. He never violated the Sabbath, not even to write a letter to his wife, unless he was forced into action by the enemy.

Jackson was an odd man and sometimes awkward man, a professor who sometimes found book-learning to be a challenge. The young cadets he taught at VMI before the war made fun of him. Yet, when the times demanded it, he was bold and decisive. He was daring and inventive. Jackson's military campaigns are still studied by professional soldiers, more than 100 years after his death.

King was a very different kind of leader. While Lee and Jackson are famous for their military leadership, King is famous for being nonviolent and for inspiring other people to be nonviolent. He led a movement that moved the United States' reality much closer to the United States' ideals.

He put himself in danger to show others how important basic human rights are. King inspired and shamed and set an example.

Like the two men he shared a holiday with this past January, King was not a plaster saint. He made mistakes and suffered lapses in judgment. But he did speak and inspire and lead. Ultimately, he died to further his cause — a cause that really belonged to every American, even the ones who considered King an agitator and a traitor. King's cause was freedom and equality and the nation's progress toward fulfilling its promise.

King died for other people, and the Bible says that is a sign of the greatest kind of love.

The movement to split Lee-Jackson-King Day was built on the idea that King deserves his own day; the idea that lumping a civil rights leader with two Civil War leaders who were on the losing side is more than odd — it is wrong.

I think I can understand those people's point of view. I just disagree. Lee-Jackson-King Day is a unique holiday that presents a unique opportunity to talk about, to learn about, to reconsider what it means to be an American — and what kind of Americans this country needs.

Splitting the holiday takes away that opportunity. Worse, dividing the holiday suggests a division among the citizenry.

That division is something Lee, in the aftermath of the Civil War, and King, in the turmoil of the civil rights movement, worked very so very hard to defeat. It's ironic that a day named in their honor could work against what they stood for.

Tim Thornton is a higher-education reporter for the Greensboro News & Record.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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