MLK, Lee holidays should be separate

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My great-great-great grandfather lost an eye fighting the Yankees in the Civil War. One of his brothers died on the battlefield at Lookout Mountain, another in a Yankee prison camp.

I am not a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but I suppose that should I choose to apply, my credentials would be in order.

I am proud of my ancestors -- not because I believe that slavery was right; like any other reasonable person on the face of the Earth I believe it was immoral and unconscionable and left a tremendous stain on the history of our nation. What I am proud of is the fact that they were willing to fight for their beliefs, however misguided, and to protect their families and their home state.

As much as I am proud of my heritage, however, I do recognize my ancestors' flaws and failings. In a sense, they had a lot in common with the great Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

By all accounts, Lee was a man of great honor who was held in high esteem by many throughout the United States. In fact, he was offered command of the Union Army by Abraham Lincoln; he declined that offer and instead joined the Confederacy out of a sense of loyalty to his home state of Virginia.

Many people believe Lee was a great man. I don't dispute this. His sense of loyalty and duty is admirable. And it should be pointed out that Lee freed his slaves 10 years before the war, although all of them chose to stay on his plantation.

Now, let's talk about another great man, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In his own way, King was just as much a patriot as the Founding Fathers. His dream for America was "a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

That sounds like such a simple concept, but the reality is that we haven't reached that point as a nation. Sadly, we may never get there. Too many people on both sides of the issue refuse to let go of stereotypes and mistrust. Indeed, their actions help perpetuate those stereotypes and mistrust.

If King were alive today, I believe he would say there is much work left to do, by both black and white Americans.

Of course, King isn't alive today. He was killed by a sniper's bullet on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. Fifteen years later, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that created a federal holiday in King's honor. The holiday is observed on the third Monday in January each year.

In Arkansas, however, the MLK holiday is a joint occasion. Our state honors Lee on the third Monday in January as well.

Perhaps the MLK and Lee holidays are held on the same day simply because of the timing of their birthdays. King was born on Jan. 15 and Lee on Jan. 19. But the appearance the joint holiday gives, in my opinion, is that the state is trying to dilute the honor given to King.

For all of his admirable qualities, Lee fought a war to ensure that men like King would forever be enslaved. King fought his own war a century later to make sure that they would forever be free.

As a white man, and a descendant of the Confederacy, I believe the joint holiday is wrong. I have no objection to honoring Robert E. Lee for his courage, his conviction and his loyalty. But we shouldn't do it on the same day that we honor those same qualities in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers.