Martin Luther King Jr was born and raised in Georgia. Yet I’ve never seen anyone wearing a t-shirt with his image as an act of “southern pride.” No. “Southern pride” is always expressed with the Confederate flag, Stonewall Jackson, or Robert E Lee.
I came upon this photo over at Hullabaloo, Now Why Would They Do This? I was stunned when I saw it. It isn’t like I’m not aware that many in the south continue to fetishize Lee and pretend that somehow the Confederacy was the true American cause — the “war of northern aggression” and all that ahistorical garbage. But it boggles my mind that a state would combine a celebration of the civil rights struggle with the celebration of the man who led the war to keep racially defined slavery.
Jamelle Bouie explained the whole thing yesterday at Slate, Happy Robert E Lee Day! In the image above, the state is Arkansas. But Alabama and Mississippi (Of course!) do the same thing. In addition, three other states — Georgia, Florida, and Virginia — also celebrate Lee, but they don’t combine him with Martin Luther King. So there’s that.
In Bouie’s telling of it, this is not really a political statement. It just is the case that Lee and King have birthdays that are close together. “As a concept, it was a poor pairing. As a bureaucratic solution, it worked.” But I think Bouie is being too fair or at least non-judgmental. This is racist pandering. It is a signal to the bigots that the state is just doing the whole Martin Luther King thing for the sake of political correctness and that we all know Lee is what the south really stands for. (In that regard, they might have a point.)
There is something more to this, however. Robert E Lee was a traitor. I discussed this in, No More Confederate General Bases! Lee was specifically given the chance to lead the union army. He declined. He chose instead to not only take up arms against his own country in a war started by the southern states, he chose to lead that army. I don’t really care that he was an honorable man. Erwin Rommel was an honorable man, but we don’t have state holidays for him! And when Rommel turned traitor against his nation, it was in the name of something good. When Lee did, it was in the name of one of the worst things this country ever did.
It’s weird, I think. Conservatives are all about how liberalism coddles minority groups — especially African Americans. That’s not true, of course — we are simply trying to create a fair nation — but that’s what conservatives think. Meanwhile, their political power is based upon coddling southern bigots. But when it comes to the southern bigots, the whole nation gets into the game. That’s why no one rises up in disgust at the south’s continued use of an American traitor as a hero and the continued use of the Confederate flag as though it were a symbol of anything other than treason.
The south will never grow up unless we force it to put away its childish illusions that the Civil War was anything but a treasonous act in defense of one of the vilest of human behaviors. There are a lot of ways that people could show their “southern pride,” if they think it necessary. As I noted a few days ago, they could lionize William Faulkner. But somehow, showing “southern pride” is always about hearkening back to the good ol’ days when blacks knew their place. I’m not keen on the whole idea of regional pride to begin with. But “southern pride” has a special smell of rot. It is a disease that is hobbling our republic.