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Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day — or MLK-Robert E. Lee Day If You Live in One of These States

MLK-Lee Day is criticized by many who see it as contradictory to celebrate Lee, a Confederate general who fought to keep black people from voting, on the same day the country remembers MLK’s legacy of racial justice and integration.
Photo by John Taggart/EPA

Since the mid-1980s, the third Monday in January has been designated as a US federal holiday in honor of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., celebrating one of the greatest Americans — except if you live in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, the three states where MLK Day is a joint holiday that also marks the birthday of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee.

MLK-Lee Day is criticized by many who see it as inherently contradictory to celebrate Lee, who led the army of the states defending slavery and after the Civil War fought to keep black people from voting, on the same day the country remembers MLK's legacy of racial justice and integration. In Arkansas, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to separate the two holidays, with lawmakers trying to pass a bill that would have created a separate memorial for Lee on a different date.


Arkansas Democratic representative Jeff Wardlaw told Reuters that he voted against the bill last year because "I'm the kind of guy who does what his constituents tell him they want, and last year they indicated they didn't want a change."

But the holiday is far from settled in the state and in response to the growing criticism, Arkansas' Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson urged lawmakers to take up the issue again earlier this month.

"I would like to see his special day, his Martin Luther King Day, be a separate day to himself and to the recognition of his role in the civil rights movement in our country," Hutchinson told reporters during a news conference on January 6. "It's important that that day be distinguished and separate and focused on that civil rights struggle and what he personally did in that effort, the great leader he was during that cause. They need to be distinguished and separate."

In 1947, the Arkansas state legislature declared Lee's birthday on January 19 as an official holiday, which it then combined with MLK Day in 1985, two years after President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of King.

Lee Day has also been a state holiday in Alabama and Mississippi for more than a century, along with many other southern states, where the Civil War remains an integral part of many people's identity.

Mississippi's decision to merge the MLK and Lee holidays was originally sold as a "cost-saving measure," Democratic State senator John Horhn told the Clarion-Ledger, "but many people then and now felt that it was a means to not give Dr. King his due and the singularity of recognition."

Virginia has celebrated Lee's birthday on January 19, which is also the birthday of fellow Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, as Lee-Jackson day since 1889. After MLK Day became a federal holiday, Virginia combined all three birthdays to create Lee-Jackson-King Day. But the holidays were then separated in 2000, in response to the growing controversy over the implications of honoring two Confederate generals alongside a Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader on the same day.

Recently, simmering racial tensions in the US have reignited debates over many Confederate symbols that represent pride for some and racism for others. The Confederate flag is flown throughout the south and its design appears on many state flags and license plates. In July, after a white supremacist gunned down nine black parishioners in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the state's governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the capitol.

Mississippi state senator Horhn said that he hopes his state follows the Arkansas governor's push to change the holiday. "It's not to say that Robert E. Lee didn't have major accomplishments," he told the Clarion-Ledger. "But the work of Dr. King changed this country and it changed it for the better."