The Virginia General Assembly has convened for its annual legislative session this year today. Both chambers of the oldest governing body in the Western Hemisphere — for the first time since 1995 — are under Democratic control. Already, countless pieces of progressive legislation have been proposed in the General Assembly, including bills to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, ban housing discrimination against queer people, introduce stronger gun control measures, pass a version of the Green New Deal and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s an agenda unparalleled in the Commonwealth’s history, and an awe-inspiring opportunity to stimulate economic growth, implement groundbreaking social policies and strengthen our democracy.
Many of the proposed bills are sure to prompt partisan debates akin to those at the federal level, but Virginias should expect an abnormally harsh political environment when Del. Joe Lindey’s, D-Norfolk, bill to strike Lee-Jackson Day from Virginia’s list of legal holidays comes to the floor. In place of Lee-Jackson Day, Lindsey has proposed making Election Day a legal holiday. Such a change would alleviate many socioeconomic barriers to voting, as working-class people are often unable to take off work or find transit to their polls, and students at institutions like the University must attend classes and take exams. The current observance of Lee-Jackson Day is an unacceptable tribute to racism and treason, and Lindsey is right to fight for its removal from our code of law.
The holiday was first observed in 1889 to honor Lee and Jackson was added 15 years later. Since then, Lee-Jackson Day has been celebrated at the end of January every year, except for a short period from 1985 to 2000 when state legislators added Martin Luther King Jr. to the holiday to create “Lee-Jackson-King Day.” Current Virginia law defines its purpose as, “to honor Robert Edward Lee...and Thomas Johnathan (Stonewall) Jackson... defenders of causes.” It begs the question as to what “causes,” exactly, were being defended.
Supporters of the holiday will argue it celebrates Lee and Jackon’s ardent support of the Commonwealth during a time of unprecedented internal divisions in the United States. While in their time Lee and Jackson were fighting for the Commonwealth and its laws, we cannot look back and ignore the fact that the very laws they were fighting to protect enslaved, persecuted and murdered human beings. Though Commonwealth of today is far from perfect on issues of racial equity, to argue Lee and Jackson’s actions deserve a place of honor in the present day requires a perversion of history. They were not champions of state sovereignty or honorable military generals. They were slave-owning traitors who fought against the American government.
Lee-Jackson Day, like the hundreds of Confederate statues in our parks, town squares and courthouse grounds, stands as an ideological tribute to racism and treason. It is foolish to defend the holiday as an honor of service to the Commonwealth while ignoring the racist horrors of the time. It is nothing short of socially inept to argue these men’s service to the Commonwealth is of more importance than the contextualization and reparations required to correct the violence and hatred of our Commonwealth’s darkest period.
Ending the observance of Lee-Jackson Day is not a radical idea. In fact, it’s something many city and town councils across the Commonwealth — including Charlottesville’s — have already done. These localities understand that Lee and Jackson, two among many Confederate generals and politicians, fought for inequality and systemic hate. They see the bigger picture — that the idolization of Lee and Jackson is not to honor their dedication to Virginia, but to honor their dedication to the social code of the Antebellum South.
With their newly aquired legislative and administrative powers, Democrats have promised Virginians a “New Virginia,” a promise which must include redress for the white supremacist symbolism and systemic racial inequity. Historical contextualization cannot be excluded. We cannot look back on Lee and Jackson with honor — we must look back and acknowledge the Commonwealth of then was racist and wrong. We cannot permit the far right’s historical revisionism to continue — we must fight for truth. We cannot allow a testament of racism to remain in our code of law. The General Assembly must eliminate Lee-Jackson Day.
Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
CORRECTION: a previous version of this article spelled Del. Joe Lindsey's name incorrectly. It has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling.