As schools gear up their lessons for Martin Luther King Jr. day, there’s a little bit of a dark cloud on the horizon: In two states, the third Monday in January is officially also the holiday of another figure: the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Several Southern states, bristling at the establishment of the new federal holiday in the 1980s, conflated it with their existing days recognizing Lee— although that is probably not the whole story given those states’ long history of papering over the reality of slavery and Jim Crow. (Lee actually precedes King on Alabama’s official state calendar, Alabama journalist Leada Gore pointed out in an op-ed for AL.com.)
Whether these decisions were made for bureaucratic reasons or more ominous ones—likely a combination of both—it is pretty ghastly to pair a holiday for a black civil rights leader with one celebrating someone who fought for the preservation of a slave society.
But does this affect schoolchildren in any kind of direct way? That is not so clear.
In speaking to a few experts who work with schools in those states, no one could recall an instance of a teacher specifically doing a Lee lesson around this holiday. Remember, too, that MLK day happens on a day off from school, so while most schools do offer lessons on King this week or next, it’s probably pretty easy for them to drop Lee and move on when Tuesday rolls around.
But that’s purely anecdotal; it doesn’t mean there isn’t some teacher out there who tries to teach both figures at the same time.
A perusal of Mississippi’s newly crafted social studies standards shows they don’t mention Lee at all; Alabama’s do reference Lee in a section on “key Northern and Southern personalities.” (On civil rights history and figures, including Dr. King, the Southern Poverty Law Center gave Alabama an A grade for content and Mississippi a C in a 2014 report.)
None of that, of course, says anything about what individual textbooks adopted by those states and their school districts mention on Lee or King.
Online resources paint a wide array of portrayals of Lee, from those that use primary sources—Lee’s own (limited) writing on slavery—to those that skip over his connection to slavery, focusing instead on his battle strategy as “a great Civil War leader.”
The depiction of the courtly, principled Lee developed over years of biased historiography, most notably in the 1920s and ‘30s during the nadir of race relations, the historian Eric Foner writes in a superb essay for The New York Times.
We are, however, in a period of serious reckoning over the way the Confederacy is represented in public life, and that definitely extends to the classroom.
As countless historians have pointed out, most Confederate monuments were erected as part and parcel of the signing of Jim Crow laws, the development of Lost Cause mythology, and the establishment of white supremacy in the South in the decades following the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Education Week wrote a bit about the opportunities and challenges that presents for classroom teachers. The subsequent rally in Charlottesville by white supremacists, in 2017, made it even more important that classroom teachers be equipped to handle these topics.
Dozens of schools are still named for Lee or other Confederate generals, Education Week found in an analysis last year, but that number has been dropping since the 2015 slaughter of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C. church, and the 2017 Charlottesville violence.
Conversations about monuments continue. Earlier this week, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ordered the removal of the plinth of the Confederate “Silent Sam” statue, pulled down by protesters in 2018, before also announcing her departure. Most observers say the two events are directly linked.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that other states that used to link these two holidays have revised those decisions. In 2017, Arkansas ended its dual King and Lee holiday, though it now designates a different day for recognizing Lee. (Florida does, too.) There is currently an active petition calling on all four states to end a celebration of Lee, with more than 15,000 signatures so far.
Teaching MLK: An Opportunity and Challenge
None of this is meant to detract from the fact that teaching about Dr. King this week or next is a difficult and fraught thing for any classroom teacher. Last year, I reported extensively on some of these challenges. Most pressing is that King is routinely portrayed in a weak, milquetoast way that rarely touches on his embrace of nonviolent confrontation, nor on the increasing impatience of his message, nor on the broader social-justice work that characterized his activism closer to his death.
Instead, educators tend to focus on the “I Have a Dream” speech—and only the more palatable parts of it.
As a District of Columbia teacher told me then: “In 1963, what was a white middle-class person going to be able to relate to but the part that was about equality? There is this liberal paternalism that makes Martin Luther King Jr.'s complex and increasingly radical vision reduced to ‘and justice for all'—without understanding how we get to the justice part.”
Bingo. You can read much more about this in a number of past Education Week commentaries and stories, and in perusing them I came across this provocative one, from Harvard University Professor Meira Levinson, who made the connection between King’s civil rights tactics and civics education—a major point of interest both for education advocates and for our newspaper.
“King’s model of civic action is as relevant to the right as to the left. But for the most part, young people and adults alike seem to fail to recognize even that they could carry forward King’s work in any but the most anodyne ways,” she wrote. “I find this discouraging, because our democracy would be stronger, and we as citizens would be better, if we did emulate King in addition to venerating him.”
Photos, from top:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, testifies before the Senate Government Operations subcommittee in 1966.—AP Photo
Gen. Robert E. Lee poses on the back porch of the Lee house in Richmond, Va., in 1865.—Mathew B. Brady/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.