It seems bizarre that Martin Luther King, Jr., figurehead of civil rights, and Robert E. Lee, protector of the slave-holding South, should share a celebration day. But that’s the reality for three southern states: Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Like you, I thought this was at least in bad taste. Asa Hutchinson, the Republic governor of Arkansas, is aiming to separate the holidays out of respect for both the inheritors of the civil rights movement and the hangers on of the Confederate legacy. But the more I’m thinking about it, the more appropriate I think it is that MLK and Robert E. Lee share the same day.
For one, I love the South in all its heterogenous messiness. It has a mixed to negative reputation everywhere else in the country, but I grew up here and I see things distant haters can’t see. For a while, I didn’t even realize how foreign the Southern reality still was for the rest of the country.
The South is regularly criticized for being racist. And that’s fair in some ways. There are perhaps more outspoken racists in the South than there are in other parts of the country. But you know what? There is also more racial diversity.
I have to laugh when people from the Great White West talk about race and diversity. I’m thinking, “Dude, you’ve never even seen a black person except for on TV.” That’s only a slight exaggeration.
The South is dotted with communities where people of all colors live together. I’ve lived in California and visited all over the country, and the mixed communities of the South barely exist anywhere else. The park down the street from my house regularly has black kids, brown kids, yellow kids, and white kids all hanging out amicably with their multi-colored parents. Just try to find that same scenario in the West outside a soundstage in Hollywood. It doesn’t exist. But it defines the South. Is it easy to hate your different neighbor? Sure. Almost as easy as it is to love someone you don’t have to live with. (I see what you did there.)
So even though I’m sure a lot of people think Robert E. Lee appreciation day is a way for certain racist Southerners to let some of the air out of an African-American celebration, in reality, such unsegregated diversity of culture actually pervades the South.
Segregating the holiday doesn’t fit the South. The true Southerner honors Robert E. Lee because he was an imperfect idealist who fought for his troubled cause with honor. The true Southerner also honors Martin Luther King, Jr., because he too was an imperfect idealist who fought for his troubled cause with honor. MLK Robert E. Lee Day is not a take-your-pick holiday (like Kwanzaa and Christmas).
It would be a segregated celebration anywhere else in this country. But this holiday, like most things in the South, is about mixing diverse things together, allowing each to contribute its good qualities and flavors, until the resultant gumbo defies expectations and exceeds the lone potential of its parts.