On April 4, 1968, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the figurehead, icon, and voice of the civil rights movement, was fatally shot on a balcony in Memphis, TN. The entire world felt this great loss: to call King a champion for civil rights would be a vast understatement. To call the Nobel Peace Prize Winner’s assassination a tragedy would hardly encompass the enormity of his contributions to making the United States, and the world, a better place.
Though proposed nearly a decade prior, it was not until 1986 that the first Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday was observed in the United States. It is to honor the birthday of the slain Civil Rights heavyweight, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929. To fall around the day of his birth, the holiday is always on the third Monday in January. The holiday is in remembrance of what Dr. King nonviolently fought for until his untimely end: the cessation of racism, as well as freedom, civil rights, and liberty for all Americans.
Let’s rewind for a minute, though.
Racism exists in the United States because of slavery: though slavery has existed in many instances throughout history and throughout the world, what made the American brand of racism particularly different was the chattel nature. Which is to say, if you were a slave, so were your children, with little no chance of altering your status in bondage. Slaves were literal property who were bought, sold, and brutalized as those who owned them saw fit. Additionally, the differences between who was enslaved and who was free were not just economic; the kidnapped Africans who became African-American slaves were obviously and visually different than the free whites, even the poor ones who did not own slaves. Which made it better to be poor and white; because at least you had your freedom.
Slavery—though the practice of systematic dehumanization of humans and the exploitation of their free labor—was the only reason the southern states were economically relevant. And contrary to what many may have you believe, the Civil War was fought over it—nearly every Declaration of Secession from the Southern states cites “slavery” as the reason for leaving the Union.
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” reads the Declaration of Secession from the state of Mississippi. “The greatest material interest of the world.”
After the war was won and the enslaved people of the South had been emancipated, the ensuing century has been referred to as Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment passed, which banned slavery, but there was a catch: those who are criminals are expressly not provided protection under this law. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall be duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
Ergo, those convicted of crimes can do, will do, and have done slave labor for very little or absolutely no pay. Very quickly following the dissolution of the institution of slavery, black people were locked up in droves, for little or no reason.
“After the Civil War African Americans were arrested en masse,” notes Michelle Alexander in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which shines light on how the 13th Amendment helped slavery evolve to the present-day prison industrial complex following Emancipation. “African Americans were arrested for extremely minor crimes like loitering and vagrancy,” she continued.
Additionally, the Southern states established Jim Crow laws, which did not allow Black people to eat, drink, shop, go to the bathroom, attend school—in a word, exist—in white spaces, lest they risk arrest. Said Alexander: “Laws were passed that relegated African Americans to a permanent second class status.”
And this is where our Dr. King—and a great many others, mind you—come into play. Though black people were technically no longer enslaved, which made them citizens with voting rights, they were not voting. Poll taxes, voter intimidation, and outright denial left black southerners without their fundamental right to vote. Jim Crow left black people to search for their dignity in Northern, Midwestern, and West Coast states (this was later called the Great Migration), while many stayed in the South and fought for their freedom and their dignity.
Martin Luther King died because of the anti-black hatred that did not vanish with the dissolution of slavery. So why then, does he share a holiday in many Southern states with Robert E. Lee and/or Stonewall Jackson—two “heroes” of the Confederacy?
Robert E. Lee Day, like MLK Day, is celebrated on the third Monday in January in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida. In Virginia, the holiday is Lee—Jackson day, and after some understandable protests, lawmakers quietly moved the holiday to the Friday prior to Martin Luther King Day.
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, born January 21, 1824, was a Confederate general from 1861 until his death in 1863. Robert E. Lee was born January 19, 1807 in Virginia. He is known for commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War until he surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.
In a letter to his wife in 1856, Lee referred to “slavery as an institution” as “a moral & political evil in any Country.” He went on to say that it was somehow “a greater evil to the white man than to the black race,” so much so, that “[his] sympathies are more strong for the former.”
The kicker of course, was when Lee asserted that though he knew slavery to be evil, that he believed black people were better off brutalized and working for free in the United States than in their homeland: “[t]he blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically.” He finished by saying that the brutality of slavery was “punishment” to black people as a race and also “necessary” for their well-being, and that only God could end slavery: “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
This “hero” believed that black people like Dr. King deserved the brutality that they endured for over four centuries as punishment for some unmentioned and nonexistent crime of the entire race. Essentially, he blamed the victims of violence and subjugation for the crimes committed against them. And then, after saying only God could set them free, he pledged his allegiance to the side of a war that fought to keep them in chains.
One must wonder (I know I do) how people cannot see how blatantly disrespectful this juxtaposition is. Lee and Jackson quite literally fought to make sure the ancestors of King remained enslaved, essentially because they believed black people deserved to be brutalized and unfree. Those who were enslaved were objected to unimaginable physical, mental, and emotional pain and suffering for the entirety of their lives. Why is there perpetuation of anything promoting slavery, be it one’s heritage or not, anywhere in present American society, other than as an example of the end of a disgusting institution, and the defeat of a nation hellbent on keeping it?
What does it say about the ending of slavery and then the ending of Jim Crow that the causes for both are largely ignored, to the point that Confederate holidays exist at all, let alone so close to the day celebrating perhaps the most famous black civil rights figure?
It says what many people still know to be true: That racism is alive and well. That people would always rather stick their heads in the sand and continue to live their lives in a way that is disrespectful and dehumanizing to those who are different. It is obvious that this is the case; if you doubt any further, look who planned a celebratory parade after Donald Trump was elected (hint: it was the Ku Klux Klan).
This MLK Day, and every one hereafter until the Confederacy is looked at with shame instead of wistful nostalgia and ancestral pride, may you always remember that with their continued insistence on holidays for a treasonous country, the southern states continue to act out the brutal murder of Martin Luther King Jr.