Today is an official state holiday in Alabama celebrating Confederate Memorial Day. State offices and courts across the state close on the fourth Monday in April every year for the holiday, which is one of three Confederate holidays on the official state calendar. Confederate Memorial Day is also an official state holiday in Mississippi.
In recent years Confederate holidays and icons have come under attack for romanticizing an era when millions of black people were enslaved and brutally abused and assaulted. Some states have repealed holidays that combined the celebration of Robert E. Lee’s birthday with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, taken down the Confederate battle flag from their capitol buildings, and removed Confederate statues and memorials.
Celebrations of the Confederacy increased dramatically at the end of the 19th century following the collapse of Reconstruction and an official return to white supremacy. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, many Southern states passed new laws and state constitutions that required racial hierarchy, Jim Crow segregation, and the mass disenfranchisement of black citizens. Confederate holidays became an opportunity to celebrate this new racial order, accompanied by events in which veterans would parade in full uniforms with songs, flowers, and speeches about the “Lost Cause.”
States are now trying to reconcile this history with the continuation of these holidays. In Georgia, Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday were struck from the official calendar in 2015, after nine African American congregants were shot to death at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a gunman who was motivated by a narrative of racial bigotry and white supremacy symbolized by the Confederate battle flag. Lawmakers have denied efforts to reinstate Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia.
Yet many Southern states still observe these holidays. Florida recognizes a “legal holiday” for Confederate Memorial Day in April, and South Carolina celebrates it as an official holiday on May 11. Texas’s holiday schedule includes Confederate Heroes Day on January 19.
In Tennessee, state law instructs the governor to issue proclamations for three Confederate holidays, including Confederate Decoration Day on June 3 and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in July, which celebrates the Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Critics of these holidays have emphasized that most states have done little to recognize the tragedy and trauma of slavery or the multiple ways in which the legacy of enslavement continues to burden our nation.
In 2018, EJI opened the nation’s first comprehensive sites on the legacy of slavery and racial terror lynchings. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors thousands of victims of racial terror lynching, opened on April 26-27, two years ago today. We celebrate the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the sites to learn more about our history.