It’s inevitable that Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. run into one another now and then. The calendar only has so many possibilities. So this year, because Martin Luther King Day is a floating holiday pegged not to a specific date but a Monday, it fell on January 19, which is also Lee’s birthday. It’s hard not to speculate on what they might talk about. My guess is, not much.
In death, both men have become larger than life. That is, they are not merely people from history; they have become symbols of history, and particular—very separate—strains of history at that. King is still the face we put on the Civil Rights movement. And while Lee does not utterly personify the Civil War in quite the same way—he shares that duty with Lincoln and maybe even Grant—he is certainly the face of the Confederacy.
When I grew up in the South, these histories seemed to run on parallel tracks that never met. At times the disparity between the two narratives could drive you almost crazy.
In the late ’60s, I had a high-school English teacher who was, shall we say, getting on in years, and she kept paintings of Lee and Stonewall Jackson hanging on the wall of her classroom. What’s interesting about this is that the high school where she taught was the most successfully integrated institution I have ever known. Because the high school was located in the geographical center of the city, the student body was made up of black and white, rich and poor and middle-class kids. Because the Methodist orphanage was located across the road from the school, we even had orphans.
It was a true cross section of society, but somehow everyone co-existed amicably, or the students did, at least. The administration and much of the faculty, especially the older teachers, seemed to view integration more grudgingly, as though it were a trick played on them. Historically speaking, of course, their behavior was unexceptional.
Until the ’60s, our city had been two societies, one black and one white. I grew up with color-coded water fountains, a black balcony at the movie theater, and neighborhoods clearly segregated by race. African-Americans had their own cab and bus services. Before school integration, the only major social event in which both blacks and whites participated equally was the city’s Christmas parade, and even then there was no mingling. Black high school bands marched separately from white school bands.
The Civil Rights movement changed a lot of that, thanks to the guts and determination of people like Dr. King. I seriously doubt that any teacher in any school in my hometown today has a picture of Robert E. Lee on the wall of her classroom.
That said, I’m sure there are still teachers who would put up a portrait of Lee if they thought they could get away with it. Race relations may have come a long way since I was child, but even today there are those who, when they think of “history,” see Lee’s face. And conversely there are plenty of others who see King’s image. It is one of the supreme ironies that the one place where the idea of “separate but equal” prevails most insistently is in our approach to what should be a shared history.
A few years ago, I drove through the Mississippi Delta, the site of some of the most vicious confrontations of the Civil Rights era. There the parallel histories I’m talking about play out in very visible ways. There are buildings dedicated to Emmett Till, the black child murdered by racists for whistling at a white woman. And there are buildings and bridges named for legislators such as Stennis and Eastland, who number among the most intransigent racists of the last century. Everyone seems to want to honor the past, but the histories they want to celebrate are not the same.
Unfortunately, cherry picking the past doesn’t work. It leaves you with a lopsided, illusory idea of history. I was luckier than most, since I was brought up to revere Robert E. Lee, and not just admire him but emulate him. If I lost my temper, I was told to be more like the Marble Man. If I was caught in a lie, I was reminded that Lee never told lies and did his duty even when he didn’t like it. This did not have the desired effect. On the contrary, it made me loathe Lee and the Lost Cause and everything about the Confederacy. By the time I was 12 I was ready to dig him up and kill him all over again. But at least I was never taught to love the parts of history that appealed to me and to ignore the rest.
Since then, officially at least, there is some progress. King has a national holiday in his honor and Lee does not (at the state level it’s a different and much more problematic story: five Southern states officially celebrate Lee’s birthday, and Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi celebrate both men’s birthdays on the same day). Put it more bluntly: King deserves a holiday in his honor, and Lee does not. That’s as it should be, since King did everything he could to make all Americans equal and Lee was on the wrong side of the conflict that more than any other tore the country apart. Which is not to say that there’s not every good reason to study Lee, one of the most problematic individuals in our nation’s history. But celebrating him, in the name of “heritage” or anything else, that’s another thing entirely.
The coincidence of Martin Luther King Day and Lee’s birthday falling on the same day is unsettling, but it’s fitting, too. It makes you think about all the parts of our past that don’t fit together easily. Southerners especially should be comfortable with this sort of awkwardness, since most of us, black and white, have grown up with it.
In my case, it meant growing up around people who occasionally dropped the N-word, which in turn meant reconciling my ideas about people I loved with things I hated. It’s not an easy thing to do. I spent a lot of time identifying with Faulkner’s Quentin Compson (“I don’t hate the South. I don’t hate. I don’t hate it.”). But as painful as the experience was, it taught me a lot about the genuine complexity of the country I live in.
With that in mind, I think that for all the awkwardness that ensues, it’s salutary when Lee and King occasionally collide calendrically. They might not have a lot in common to talk about, but the rest of us surely do.