“Proud, honorable, and stoic … a gentleman”

Published:January 16, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! The University of Virginia—and Encyclopedia Virginia, too—is observing the federal holiday, while the administration of Washington and Lee University has decided to take a pass. This has caused some consternation, as the Washington Post reports. While the university has scheduled programming to honor King, some students are concerned that it “will be overshadowed by events three days later to mark the birthday of Robert E. Lee.”

The proximity of King Day and Lee-Jackson Day has always caused problems. And it is awkward, isn’t it, to think about Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. all at the same time? But in a way it’s also necessary. Our entry on Lee in American memory is currently wending its way through the editing process, but here’s an appropriate taste:

The states in controlling Lee’s memory continue to be high. At the extremes, he represents both the South’s finest face and its ugliest. He was proud, honorable, and stoic; he was a gentleman. But he also fought to defend a country founded on chattel slavery. These tensions can be found in the controversial combining, in 1983, of Lee-Jackson Day with the new federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. According to an Associated Press report reprinted in The Winchester Star on February 13, 1981, “Cries of shock and outrage from Virginians unwilling to link a black civil rights leader with two of the most revered figures of the Confederacy.” A Richmond man said in a public hearing that lawmakers “can give Martin Luther King any day you want so long as it isn’t anywhere near Lee-Jackson Day.” At the same hearing, Maxwell Perkinson Sr., the Virginia commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said, “If a day is to be set aside for a black, let it be for a Virginian.” According to the Associated Press, “Laughter from the audience greeted his remark, ‘Some of my best friends are blacks.'” The two holidays were separated in 2000.

While I don’t subscribe to the SCV commander’s attitude, I’m happy to run with his idea of a holiday for a black Virginian. A few suggestions off the top of my head:

Kevin Levin, meanwhile, thinks about the Washington and Lee controversy by asking, “What would Robert E. Lee do?” Our entry on Lee, in considering his later years, can only hint at an answer:

After this time, though still maintaining a low public profile, [Lee] worked to establish a conservative state government, wrote angry private diatribes against the principle of majority rule, and advocated disenfranchising the newly liberated African Americans. Racial conflicts also plagued Washington College, to which he responded ambivalently.

ONE LAST THING: King visited Danville, Virginia, on July 11, 1963, after civil rights demonstrations there turned violent. You can watch his televised speech here and, after the jump, read a transcript.

King: We have certainly been with you in spirit and we have agonized with you as you have faced the brutality and the ruthlessness of a vicious police force. I have seen some brutal things on the part of policemen all across the South in our struggle, but very seldom, if ever, have I heard of a police force being as brutal and vicious as the police force here in Danville, Virginia. And you have stood up amid this with great courage, you have done it with great discipline and great dignity, and I want to commend you for it and to bid you God’s speed. And since that day when we started out in Birmingham, Alabama, as you know, many things have happened in this civil rights struggle, all over the South, all over the nation. And I’m sure we will all agree that we stand today on the threshold of a most significant break-through in civil rights. I do want to commend you, the leadership of this community, and those who have participated in this powerful, direct-action movement in this community. You have inspired all of us through your courageous efforts, your willingness to suffer, and your willingness to stand-up for a cause which you know, and which we all know, is a righteous cause, and one that will ultimately triumph. It is only natural that I would want to be on the scene and that I would want to give the support to the organization that is an affiliate organization of the parent body, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But also I am here to let the community know that I am with you as an individual, not only as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but as a person concerned about the problems of this community and communities all over the South. And I come here to let you know that you have my full, personal support. Now there’s another reason why I am here and that is the simple fact that injustice is here, and I feel that wherever injustice is alive, it is a responsibility for people of good will to take a stand against it, for injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And as long as this community has problems, as long as the Negro is not free in Danville, Virginia, the Negro is not free anywhere in the United States of America. And I come here to say to you that I am concerned about the injustice in this community.