The most important purpose of a holiday is the message it sends about who we were, who we are today, and what we value. They help use make sense out of our history and point the direction to a better future. They tell us who our heroes are so we can imitate them in our politics and in our personal lives.
Dr. King understood the true meaning of patriotism and love. He marshaled the forces of non-violence to fight oppression. He wanted the country to be true to its ideals of equality and liberty and, therefore, become the “more perfect union” promised by the Constitution’s preamble. In the face of more radical demands for violence and separation, he advocated peaceful resistance, love, and unity.
General Lee used a false notion of patriotism to take up arms against his country and a misplaced sense of honor to defend slavery. It does not matter that he may have opposed slavery personally or that he believed he was acting honorably. In the end, he committed treason and helped cause the death of over 600,000. Indeed, had he been successful, Dr. King may have been in bondage instead of in the pulpit.
That is why joining the King and Lee holidays was always a bad idea and gets worse with each passing year. Dr. King chose the right side of history. General Lee chose the wrong side. Dr. King is a hero for all of us, black and white. He tells all of us that profound, peaceful change and unity is possible. He points us towards our highest ideals and offers us a way to realize them. General Lee, for whatever personal qualities he had, did neither. Joining their holidays is an insult to Dr. King’s memory and to all of us – black and white – who believe in equal justice. There is simply no parallel between a man who fought to preserve slavery (and that was what the Civil War was all about) and a man who fought to create equality.
I say this as a proud graduate of Washington & LEE University who lived, and worked for 7 years quite literally in the shadow of Lee Chapel where the General’s office is preserved exactly as he left on the day he died. We can study Lee only as a tragic figure – as a man who made the wrong choice – and vow never to make the same mistake again. Holding Lee up as a hero sends the wrong message about our past, our present, and our future. Instead of advancing toward King’s vision of a just and unified society, joining the holidays keeps old wounds fresh and makes unity almost impossible.
February 11, 2015 Comments Off