I would like to bring to light a little known fact about America. Yesterday, January 15th, we celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday. Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday as well. The reason given for this sinister coupling is that legislators in these states did not want to create two holidays in the month of January.
These three states are not the only culprits. Arizona didn’t recognize MLK Day until 1992. This only happened because they lost millions of dollars as a result of a boycott by the NFL. Virginia recognized MLK Day along with Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee until 2000. South Carolina made state employees “choose [to take holiday] between MLK Day or three other Confederate holidays” until 2000.
Why Celebrate Lee?
It is difficult to imagine a justification for a holiday in honor of Lee.
Lee fought to uphold a constitution that said, “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government.”
Lee was a hard taskmaster. He broke up slave families and salves would run away from his plantation. Lee had runaways severely whipped for this infraction. A firsthand retelling of Lee’s brutality was written in the April 14, 1866 printing of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Here is the account  of Wesley Norris, a recipient of one of the beatings ordered by Lee:
My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement. (Emphasis Mine)
This is probably how they looked after their beating:
Again, Lee had slaves whipped and had brine, salt water, placed in their wounds.
What would Robert E. Lee have done to Martin Luther King if he tried to push for his rights in Lee’s day? How can both men be celebrated on the same day?
“Robert E. Lee: His Brutality to His Slaves” in National Anti-Slavery Standard Vol. XXVI. No. 49 (April 14, 1866). Whole No. 1,349. 4.
1. Wesley Norris’ account is located on the last page, column 4, of the linked document.