Out With the Confederacy, In With Democracy in Virginia

A Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. Photo: Chuck Myers/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

It was assumed there would be a major change in legislative priorities thanks to Democrats winning control of the Virginia legislature last year, giving them (along with the governorship under Ralph Northam) a governing trifecta. Bills more than doubling the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 are moving through both chambers of the legislature. A bill abolishing the Commonwealth’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees has been passed by the House of Delegates and is moving toward passage in the Senate.

But the most richly symbolic sign of a new day in the Old Dominion is undoubtedly this one, as reported by CNN:

Virginia is one step closer to ending its tradition of honoring Confederate generals.

This week, the Virginia House voted to strike Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. The holiday, observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, honors Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as “defenders of causes.”

Both men owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery in the US.

In its place, the House bill proposed that the state replace it with Election Day, the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November, instead.

Gov. Ralph Northam included the measure in his 2020 legislative proposals. If Election Day becomes a state holiday, he said, it’ll be easier for Virginians to vote.

Lee, of course, has been the object of an enormous and region-wide cult of Confederate memorial and neo-Confederate defiance. In Virginia, though, he has long been rivaled in esteem among admirers of the Lost Cause by his most famous field commander, General James “Stonewall” Jackson (given that nickname after heroics in the first major engagement of the Civil War at Bull Run). Military prowess aside, the intensely religious Jackson became known as the epitome of the “Christian soldier,” a reputation somewhat at odds with his advocacy of brutal treatment for disobedient soldiers and enemy combatants. And without question, part of the devotion surrounding him in subsequent decades derived from the belief that had he not died of an injury from friendly fire in 1863, the South would have won the war and its right to become an independent slave-owning republic.

The home in which he died was for many years known, without even a hint of irony, as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine; just last year the National Park Service finally changed the name to the Stonewall Jackson Death Site. During the great neo-Confederate monument-building era that accompanied the imposition of Jim Crow on the South, Virginia created a Robert E. Lee state holiday (in 1889), and then added Jackson’s name to it in 1904. Thus it remained through and beyond the fight against racial desegregation in which Virginia politicians played a leading part, and beyond the civil-rights era, until 1983, when in conjunction with the creation of a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., the legislature incongruously grafted King’s name onto the existing state holiday, creating Lee-Jackson-King Day. But that abomination ended in 2000 when Virginia redivided the two holidays, with Lee-Jackson Day occurring on the Friday before the King commemoration.

Now, at long last, the rebel yell of defiance associated with a state holiday in honor of these two racist traitors (which, no matter how you judge them otherwise, they most definitely were) is apparently going to be silenced. And it is highly appropriate that this particular state replace this particular tradition with an Election Day holiday to encourage voting. Under Jim Crow and the Byrd Machine, Virginia famously disenfranchised poor whites as well as African-Americans; the great historian of southern politics V.O. Key said of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s: “By contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”

Fare thee well, Lee-Jackson Day! Soon enough only open, hard-core racists will mourn its passing.

Out With the Confederacy, In With Democracy in Virginia