4. June 2015 14:02
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The Holiday Divide by Josh Cannon

4. June 2015 14:02 by Administrator | 0 Comments

In Montgomery, Alabama last Friday afternoon, a radio traffic reporter announced that many people were getting ready for “another three day weekend.” For the life of me, I could not think of what holiday falls on June 1. But I had forgotten an uncomfortable fact about Alabama.

On the first Monday of June, there is an official public holiday in observance of the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. This is only one of three Alabama state holidays commemorating the Confederacy, the other two being Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday. What’s more, in Alabama, as in Mississippi and Arkansas, the state holiday for Robert E. Lee’s birthday is observed on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The state actually lists it as “Robert E. Lee / Martin Luther King Birthday.”

A total of nine southern states observe Confederate Memorial Day, and a few celebrate this holiday on June 3, Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Texas has gone so far as to combine Jefferson Davis’ birthday with Robert E. Lee’s on January 19, to mark what they have called “Confederate Heroes Day.” Every so often, as was the case this year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, always the third Monday of January, has to share the day with this Confederate holiday.

Some of these holidays are more recent creations than you might expect. Texas established its “Confederate Heroes Day” in 1973 (the same year Illinois became the first state to adopt a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday). South Carolina only made Confederate Memorial Day an official state holiday in 2000, a compromise gesture in order to overcome remaining opposition to the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And only since the 1990s have seven southern states annually designated the month of April as Confederate History Month.

In two weeks, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. Given that, it is particularly worth considering the significance of all of these Confederate remembrances, not to mention the myriad physical Confederate memorials and monuments littering the U.S. landscape.

Amid state celebrations of the Confederacy today, you would probably be hard-pressed to find public approval of or fondness for slavery. In fact, you might not hear any mention of slavery at all. But, dig down a bit, and instead, you will still find the revisionist denial that the Confederate cause had anything to do with slavery. Dig a little deeper still, and you might find suggestions that slavery in the South was really not so bad.

It is the persistence of these self-serving revisions and lies that allows a misplaced honor and veneration for the Confederacy to continue to this day. The whitewashing of the centrality of slavery to the cause, and our national failure to tell and show the truth of that slavery, cloud otherwise clear contradictions in our national memory.

The Confederacy cannot be truly recognized apart from either American slavery or the racial subordination which defined that slavery. Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, stated in 1861 that the “cornerstone” of the new Confederate government “rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

Also in 1861, in its declaration of causes of secession, the state of Texas proudly defended what they called the South’s “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery” and held that “the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color” was a “debasing doctrine [...] at war with nature.”

Four years later, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War was over and all slaves were now free. Hence, Juneteenth. In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then, more than 40 other states, including Alabama, have chosen to recognize the day.

But something is amiss when Texas celebrates both the end of slavery and their “Confederate heroes.” Or when Montgomery proudly holds itself up as both the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and the “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” It is important that we tell ourselves the truth about the Confederacy’s primary concern for protecting and expanding slavery, and especially racial hierarchy, not just so we can unequivocally celebrate the end of slavery in 1865.

In addition, we need to tell that truth in order to have proper context for the decades of terror, violence, and racial subjugation that followed Reconstruction, for the violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement nearly a century later, and for the ways this history still impacts our society today, particularly in policing and the criminal justice system.

In short, if we are not fully honest about our past, and clear about what we celebrate and why, and what we should not celebrate and why, how can we hope to be honest and clear about the continuing, related struggles of the present?

 Josh Cannon is Deputy Program Manager with the Equal Justice Initiative 

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