April 27th, 2015

States Continue to Celebrate Confederate Memorial Day

In 2015, several Southern states continued to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day in memory of the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and his army on April 26, 1865. In Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, the last Monday of the month is an official state holiday. Alabama also continues to celebrate the birthdays of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies originated immediately after the Civil War and were seen as a celebration of the Confederacy. Veterans would parade in full uniforms with songs, flowers, and speeches about the “Lost Cause”. According to Purdue University professor Caroline E. Janney, “It is a way to sustain an identification as a Confederate. It’s a way to sustain your southern identity and to continue to resist the federal government.” But for many, the Confederate identity that the holiday celebrates is inextricably linked with a history of racism and slavery. Slavery was, after all, written into the Constitution of the Confederate states, which mandated that no law could curtail the right of whites to own negro slaves, and that slaves could not ever be discharged from their service as slaves. For many, a state holiday honoring the Confederacy is a hurtful reminder of a brutal and unjust history.

This perception is heightened when overtly racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan mark Confederate Memorial Day with hate-filled ceremonies. In Mississippi, the KKK group United Dixie White Knights celebrated Confederate Memorial Day in 2015 by burning a cross, in addition to raising the Confederate flag and reciting the Confederate pledge.

Mississippi state representative Earle Banks has been trying to get legislation passed to remove this holiday from the state, but he has met with resistance from conservatives in the state legislature. In response, Banks has offered a compromise that would make Mississippi’s Confederate Memorial Day a joint holiday that also celebrates “Civil Rights Memorial Day.” He thinks that either people should have the option of celebrating one or the other of the holidays, or that the holiday should not exist at all. Of supporters of the Confederate Memorial Day, Banks said, “They may be proud of the fact that their families were Confederates and pro-slavery. They may be ashamed that their families were pro-slavery. My family didn’t have a choice on being slaves.”