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One Mississippi Schools Take Of MLK And Robert E. Lee Day

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 21 Jan 2013 05:15am | comments
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walks Mississippi students to their newly integrated school in Grenada, Mississippi. Photo by Bettmann/Corbis, 1966.
JACKSON, Miss. – Schools around the country close in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But schools in the Deep South are also observing the birthday of Confederate General, Robert E. Lee.  Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama all officially roll the holidays together and leave it to schools to communicate the confusing marriage to students. A Mississippi community college decided to name the combination  “Heritage Day.” Ask what Heritage Day is and hear the response.

“Umm…”

“I’m not sure.”

“To be honest, I don’t know.”

“A day we get out of class!”

That’s because most people know the 3rd Monday in January as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Hinds Community College in Central Mississippi, like a handful of other Southern institutions, chooses to call it something else. Hinds students Tyrel Guyten, Kristin Bradshaw, and Jabriel Mayers find the switch confusing. Students Jaylan Sutton and Kevin Stamper also aren’t sure what Heritage Day stands for.

“I have no idea.”

“Can you elaborate on the question a little bit more?”

Heritage Day turns up on Hinds’ calendars as recently as the early 90s. Hinds Community College declined to be interviewed so it’s unclear if this was a response to MLK Day becoming a state holiday in the late 80s. In an email, Hinds representatives said Heritage Day allows “employees of the college [to] celebrate their heritage, whatever that may be.”

Critics, such as Hinds student Carrie Brown, wonder if Heritage Day and other renames aren’t a way to keep the peace between those who advocated for MLK Day and those who opposed it.

“To be honest, just to please people so they don’t step on anybody’s toes,” says Brown.

Brown adds some schools may be tiptoeing because in Mississippi, as in several states across the south, MLK Day is shared – by law – with the remembrance of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Which begs the questions: Is that counter intuitive? Offensive?

“Yeah, I believe so,” says Brown. “Martin Luther King – he stood for something. He wanted better. And Robert E. Lee. You know. North/South. Black/White. Good/Bad.”

Brown is white. Her classmate Tyrel Guyton, who is black, says he is not offended so easily.

“I don’t think its offensive,” says Guyton. “No. They are both getting celebrated so both sides should be happy.”

“Like white people and black people?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Guyton, chuckling in surprise of his own response. “If you want to put it that way.”

That’s a message experts say many Southern students are getting on this day: that history is not shared. Dr. Ted Ownby, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, says that message contradicts the inclusion King stood for.  And, Ownby says it saddles schools with the task of cleaning up the confusion.

“I think it is important to name Martin Luther King or the civil rights struggle more broadly as what this holiday is noting,” says Ownby.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee has been memorialized by southern states including Mississippi, though though many of tributes are waning. Building designed by Mississippi architect

Confederate General Robert E. Lee is  memorialized by southern states, including Mississippi, though tributes are waning. Building designed by Mississippi architect Claude Lindsley.

Ownby says many Mississippi schools remove the confusion by using MLK Day, and leaving out General Lee all together.  (He is careful to add he is not advocating schools forget Lee’s historical significance.) But Ownby says schools should examine their approach to the holiday to create a meaningful entry point to learning civil rights history and having critical discussions about equity today.

“Saying Heritage Day or History Day, I doubt if that encourages the discussion that it could, or I think should,” says Ownby.

Historically, the controversy MLK Day stirs adds another complicated layer. Mississippi Legislator Hillman Frazier proposed the adoption 1987, passing it despite the opposition of some white lawmakers. Frazier says some can choose to see the Lee pairing as bankrupting MLK Day of its meaning, but he sees it the other way around.His bill took what was once a Confederate holiday and draped it with a message of civil rights.

“It’s a learning experience,” says Frazier. “It’s a teachable moment. We can teach more about the beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King. And also talk about Robert E. Lee and the position he took in the South and show how over a period of time other southern “patriots” changed after seeing the light.”

Frazier says the US has yet to achieve equality. But check the score board. He says most Mississippi students, white or black, know far more about the life and legacy of King than Robert E. Lee. They may even use their day off to watch the inauguration of the first black president.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walks Mississippi students to their newly integrated school in Grenada, Mississippi. Photo by Bettmann/Corbis, 1966.


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