Mississippi, Alabama still pair MLK, Lee

As the country observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, two states observed a different holiday: King-Lee Day, which commemorates both King and Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The two men's birthdays fall just four days apart, but their legacies couldn't be more different.

Nonetheless, Mississippi and Alabama mark King-Lee Day as a state holiday. Until recently, they had company: Arkansas celebrated King-Lee Day until 2018, and Virginia observed Lee-Jackson-King Day, also honoring Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, until 2000. Virginia subsequently observed a separate Lee-Jackson Day the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day until 2021. Texas still celebrates Confederate Heroes Day on Lee's actual birthday, Jan. 19, and its state employees can take a paid holiday on both days.

King was born on Jan. 15, 1929; Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807. Supporters of the joint recognition "usually argue that it is a practical way to celebrate two individuals' lives who are important in the Deep South," said John Giggie, an associate history professor and director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.

Some states have separated their recognition of King from their recognition of Lee and other Confederate leaders. Florida honors King on Martin Luther King Jr. Day but also marks Lee's birthday on Jan. 19 and Confederate Memorial Day on April 26 as holidays, according to its state laws. North Carolina also marks Lee's birthday as a legal holiday. Arkansas proclaims the second Saturday in October a "memorial day" for Lee. Georgia formerly commemorated Lee's birthday in November and Confederate Memorial Day in April, but in 2015 it replaced both with unnamed "state holidays" that fall around the same time.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday in 1983, after President Ronald Reagan signed it into law. But it took until 2000 for all 50 states to observe it as a state holiday, and both its federal and state recognition met with strong resistance from some elected officials and members of the public. The fight coincided with efforts to broaden the scope of the holiday to include Confederate leaders, historians say.

States that had already observed Lee's birthday since the late 1800s or early 1900s, including Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia, decided to combine the recognition.

Some elected officials in Alabama have advocated for celebrating only King, but their efforts have been unsuccessful. A bill to end the recognition of Lee on Martin Luther King Jr. Day did not receive a committee hearing last year.

"Alabama has a history of running from uncomfortable conversations unless they fit a particular narrative," said state Rep. Chris England, a Democrat, who spearheaded the legislation. "So maybe we weren't in the mood to have an uncomfortable conversation last session. But I plan on, and other legislators plan on, giving Alabama the opportunity to have that discussion again."

Alabama observes two other holidays dedicated to Confederate leaders: Confederate Memorial Day in April, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis's birthday in June. U.S. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., believes all three state holidays devoted to the celebration of Confederate leaders should be "rescinded."

"I'm not saying that we should rewrite history," she said. "I'm just saying that we should not celebrate folks ... whose legacy it was to continue the suppression of African Americans and Black Alabamians."

The offices of the Republican governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Idaho did not respond to requests for comment.

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