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.
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
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.
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
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
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