Jan 16, 2023 - Politics & Policy

The states that celebrate both MLK Day and confederate holidays

Confederate holidays include Robert E. Lee's birthday, Confederate Memorial Day, Confederate Heroes Day (Texas), Nathan Bedford Forrest Day (Tennessee), Jefferson Davis' birthday; Data: State government calendars, Axios research; Cartogram: Shoshana Gordon and Jacque Schrag/Axios Visuals

Ten states — all in the American South — celebrate Martin Luther King Day and observe at least one confederate holiday during the rest of the year.

Why it matters: All U.S. states honor MLK every year. But the number of states also honoring the Confederacy highlights the country's struggle to reconcile its racial past.

What's happening: Alabama and Mississippi celebrate MLK and Robert E. Lee, the losing Confederate general and slaveholder, on the same day.

  • Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas all have at least one day commemorating the Confederacy on other days of the year, the Axios analysis found.
  • Mississippi and Alabama each celebrate a total of three confederate holidays every year — Robert E. Lee Day, Confederate Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis' Birthday — all paid holidays for state employees.
  • Last February in Alabama, a bipartisan group of state senators introduced legislation to split up Robert E. Lee Day and MLK Day, but the bill is "indefinitely postponed."

The intrigue: In 2000, when South Carolina became one of the last states to honor MLK with a state holiday, the legislature also voted to create "Confederate Memorial Day," celebrated annually on May 10.

  • Tennessee has a day of "special observance" for Nathan Bedford Forrest, another Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Though Arkansas split up Robert E. Lee Day and MLK day in 2017, the state still commemorates Lee on the second Saturday in October, as well as Jefferson Davis on June 3.
  • For years, Georgia listed Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee Day on its official state holiday calendar. Since 2016, the state has changed both holiday names to the innocuous-sounding "State Holiday."
  • Georgia state law requires the governor to pronounce at least one day dedicated to honoring the Confederacy.

Zoom out: Defenders of the confederate holidays and monuments say removing them would erase history.

Reality check: Historians and scholars say the confederate holidays and monuments in the South mostly appeared well after the Civil War as confederate apologists pushed the Lost Cause narrative downplaying slavery.

What they're saying: "It is a diminishing reality that people even recognize and celebrate those Confederate days," NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson told Axios.

  • "We must completely do away with any concept that the Confederacy and those who participated were patriots."
  • DaMareo Cooper, co-executive director of The Center for Popular Democracy, said it was hypocritical for any state to honor King while celebrating those who defended enslavement.
  • "There's no way that you can compare someone who literally fought for the highest ideals of human beings ... to someone who was like, 'I think these humans are checkbooks, they are cow, they're like animals.'"

Don't forget: While many remaining historic sites in the South dedicated to confederates are well kept, many sites linked to civil rights and the victorious Union North sit abandoned or in disarray.

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