In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday, but I didn’t celebrate it by that name until the year 2000. My family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1993, where my father, a lieutenant in the US Navy, was stationed after a three-year deployment to Naples, Italy, which is where I started school. Second grade was my introduction to the American school calendar and the set of holidays that would be welcomed vacations from the classroom. As a seven-year-old, I didn’t think to ask anyone why January 15 marked Lee-Jackson-King Day.
The Commonwealth of Virginia began observing the January 19 birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee around 1889, and in 1904 added to this the recognition of General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s birthday (January 21). Up until 1983, it was known as Lee-Jackson Day. That year, in accordance with the new federal law, Virginia began observing Martin Luther King Day, only the Virginia legislature voted to combine it with the nearby Lee-Jackson Day, giving us Lee-Jackson-King Day, which I celebrated for seven years of my life.
“Celebrated” may not be the correct term. Alongside my classmates, I passively accepted the idea that these three men should be honored with a holiday and gleefully took the day off from school. We never bothered to ask anyone about Lee or Jackson or their accomplishments, and our teachers were more than happy to leave it all unexplained. Before any of us had any real sense of what the Confederacy was, our holiday calendars told us that the men who fought in defense of it were worthy of celebration, and we went along with it. In fact, for several years I believed that, if they were being honored on the same day as King, Lee and Jackson must have also been somehow involved in the civil-rights movement.
It wasn’t until 2000, when Virginia decided to separate King’s holiday from Lee-Jackson Day, observing the former on the third Monday of January and the latter on the preceding Friday, that I came to know the true legacies of the two slave-owning Confederate generals with whom the King had shared a day with for 16 years. A Washington Post story from 1999 about the “peculiar” holiday sported the headline “Three Heroes, One Odd Holiday for Virginians.” Indeed, even after the separation of holidays, they were all treated as such.
The torch bearers who descended upon Charlottesville this past weekend to protest the removal of a statue honoring Lee appear young enough to have attended grade school after the separation, but it’s clear they received the same message. In Lee, they see a hero. Not only do they see a hero, they see themselves. The chant that animated their march was, “You will not replace us.” More than 150 years after the end of Civil War, they choose to identify with those who took up arms in order to maintain holding people in bondage. I wish I found this more surprising.