Remembrances of Civil Rights, Confederate Leaders Combined

Jan 21, 2013

Schools around the country are closed Monday in remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. But schools in the Deep South are also observing the birthday of Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. 

Though Louisiana doesn't, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama all officially roll the holidays together and leave it to schools to communicate the confusing marriage to students. From the Southern Education Desk, Annie Gilbertson, reports on a Mississippi community college that has decided to name the combined observance, "Heritage Day."


Gen. Robert E. Lee and Dr. Martin Luther King are remembered together in Mississippi on
Credit Library of Congress

Heritage Day comes around every third Monday in January -- a day most people know as Martin Luther King Day. 

Hinds Community College in central Mississippi, like a handful of other Southern institutions, chooses to call it something else.

Heritage Day turns up on Hinds' calendars as recently as the early '90s. Hinds Community College declined to be interviewed so it's unclear if this was a response to MLK Day becoming a state holiday in the late '80s. In an email, Hinds representatives said Heritage Day allows, "employees of the college could celebrate their heritage, whatever that may be."

Critics, such as Hinds student Carrie Brown, wonder if Heritage Day and other renames aren't a way to keep the peace between those who advocated for MLK Day and those who opposed it.

"To be honest, just to please people so they don't step on anybody"s toes," Brown said. 

Brown says some schools may be tip toeing because in Mississippi, as in several states across the south, MLK Day is shared, by law, with the remembrance of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Asked if it's counterintuitive, even offensive, to share a holiday for the civil rights and confederate leaders, Brown said yes.

"Martin Luther King -- he stood for something. He wanted better. And Robert E. Lee. You know. North/South. Black/white. Good/bad."

Brown is white. Her classmate Tyrel Guyton, who is black, said he's not offended so easily. 

"I don"t think its offensive. No. They are both getting celebrated so both sides  (both white and black people) should be happy," Gutyon said. 

That's a message experts say many Southern students are getting on this day: that history is not shared. Dr. Ted Ownby, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, said that message contradicts the inclusion King stood for.  And it saddles schools with the task of cleaning up the confusion.

"I think it is important to name Martin Luther King or the Civil Rights struggle more broadly as what this holiday is noting," said Ownby.

Ownby said many Mississippi schools remove the confusion by using MLK Day, and leaving out General Lee all together. (He was careful to add he was not advocating schools forget Lee's historical significance.) But Ownby said schools should examine their approach to the holiday to create a meaningful entry point to learning civil rights history and having critical discussions about equity today.

"Saying Heritage Day or History Day, I doubt if that encourages the discussion that it could or I think should."

Historically, the controversy MLK Day stirs adds another complicated layer. Mississippi Legislator Hillman Frazier proposed the adoption 1987, passing it against the opposition of some white lawmakers. Frazier said some can choose to see the Lee pairing as bankrupting MLK Day of its meaning, but he sees it the other way around. His bill took what was once a Confederate holiday and draped it with a message of civil rights.

It"s a learning experience," Frazier said. "It's a teachable moment. We can teach more about the beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King. And also talk about Robert E. Lee and the position he took in the South and show how over a period of time other Southern 'patriots' changed after seeing the light."

Frazier said the U.S. has yet to achieve equality. But check the score board. He said most Mississippi students, white or black, know far more about the life and legacy of King than Robert E. Lee. They may even use their day off to watch the inauguration of the first black president.