Mississippi honors Robert E. Lee on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is ridiculous and should stop

Many of Mississippi’s hot-button topics, the state flag and Confederate statues among them, revolve around the same familiar conflict. It’s not whether we should keep some parts of history and eliminate others, though that’s what some believe. It’s whether we should keep the ugliest pieces of our state’s history in places of reverence where the best pieces belong.

Prime example: Mississippi is one of two states that celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Robert E. Lee Day as a joint holiday.

There’s no denying Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee are both significant figures in American history. However, the reasons for that couldn’t be more at odds, and the implications of observing reverence for both men on the same holiday are troubling.

Rep. Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus, and other lawmakers are currently championing a bill that would allow Lee’s birthday to be observed on the fourth Monday of January. The proposal comes a year after Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson pushed through similar legislation separating the holidays in 2017. (Alabama is the only other state that maintains the joint holiday.)

Though the bill will undoubtedly be met with the same tired arguments about “erasing history,” it’s crucial to reinforce the single truth that lies at the root of every discussion about Mississippi’s past: Historical significance alone doesn’t determine whether something is deserving of public reverence.

We don’t need Confederate symbolism in our state flag to remember the Civil War any more than we need Confederate statues standing tall in our town squares to remind us how many people died in the devastating conflict. Learning from our history includes remembering why Mississippi seceded in the first place—a position “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” Learning from our history demands acknowledging that Mississippi’s ugly past didn’t end in 1865. Learning from our history requires reflection on King’s work at the forefront of the civil rights movement along with the failed efforts of those in Mississippi who tried to fight him every step of the way.

Maintaining a joint holiday not only dismisses King’s powerful life and legacy—it tells the world Mississippi considers him deserving of the same level of respect as a nation that would have kept him in shackles.

And if we ever want that narrative to change, we can start by rewriting it.

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