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Divided holiday honors distinct deeds

LAST MONDAY the Commonwealth of Virginia celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day. The holiday was changed in 1985 -- before then, it was simply Lee-Jackson Day, honoring the two Virginians who were the South's top generals in the Civil War.

By honoring three such contradictory heroes on the same day, the celebration of each individual's accomplishments is weakened. Martin Luther King Jr. deserves his own day, and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson deserve a day to themselves as well.

Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has put this important change into motion, saying in his State of the Commonwealth speech, "The combination of these individuals on a single day creates confusion among our citizens. The time has come to enhance these holidays and give them each their due recognition." Gilmore further clarified his proposal Jan. 19 in a press conference at the State Capitol, saying, "The separate contributions and separate heroic deeds of these men warrant individual holidays. It is long overdue for these men to be honored with separate holidays marking their distinct lives." He said he would honor the Confederate heroes on the preceding Friday, and continue to recognize King on Monday.

Some leaders of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Virginia have opposed this change because it puts more time between Lee-Jackson Day and their actual birth dates; Lee was born on Jan. 19 and Jackson was born on Jan. 21. However, this new holiday will not denigrate the memory of Lee or Jackson, but rather will allow for a greater recognition of both men. Under the Lee-Jackson-King Holiday, many forgot about the first two men, choosing to focus only on King.

This is an important change that shows just how important all three of these figures are. The separation of the holidays is a measure black lawmakers have long pushed for. Former Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), a black lawmaker who was instrumental in the creation of the King holiday in Virginia, has endorsed the proposed change. The combination holiday failed to fully appreciate all of their accomplishments, as we were never able to focus on King's valiant struggle for civil rights and ultimate martyrdom, or Lee and Jackson's heroic efforts for the Confederacy, in which Jackson sacrificed his life.

We should remember each of these men for what they did for the state of Virginia and the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and continues to serve as an icon for the struggle against segregation and racism. He died as a result of his activism, and his life is immortalized by his great orations. No one will forget his famous speeches, such as when he said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." King deserves a holiday in which only he is honored, and now Gilmore has put this important change into motion.

Robert E. Lee is perhaps Virginia's greatest soldier and patriot. When the Civil War broke out he was offered the command of the Union Army, and although he desperately wished that Virginia had not seceded, he knew he could not fight against his fellow Virginians. Lee is sometimes misunderstood by those who would like to classify the Confederacy, her flag, and all Confederates as racists and symbols of racism. This portrayal is entirely inaccurate, and the Confederacy's top general is the most striking example of this mischaracterization.

Lee did not own slaves, and in fact was an opponent of slavery. In 1856 he wrote in a letter to his wife, "slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country." He was not fighting for the preservation of this terrible system, but to do his duty to his state.

Stonewall Jackson was the South's top strategist. It was his military brilliance that allowed the South to overcome the overwhelming demographic odds, hold off the North for four years, and nearly win the war. Jackson was one of the keys to the South's success, from his bravery in battle where he earned his nickname, to his vital role in the war councils he held with Lee. Jackson possessed one of the best military minds this nation has ever seen, and his service to his state and the Confederacy was invaluable.

These three men are similar in that they all accomplished great things. Yet this is where the parallels end. Their achievements are so different that it is nonsensical to lump them all into one holiday. Gilmore has made the right move in proposing to honor these men on separate days so that we can give each one his due.

(Peter Brownfeld's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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