Why today is no longer Robert E. Lee day in Georgia

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

The Friday after Thanksgiving has for decades been known in Georgia as Robert E. Lee’s Birthday. But this year, the day goes by the much more neutral title: “State Holiday.”

Most state employees will still take Friday off, but they will no longer officially be memorializing the Confederate general. That's because Gov. Nathan Deal in late 2015 struck Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee's birthday from the state's official holiday calendar, replacing them with less controversial nomenclature.

Deal’s decision to quietly change the names came amid increased scrutiny of Georgia’s embrace of Confederate symbols after the massacre of nine black worshippers at a Charleston church by a white supremacist.

Since then, state-issued license plates featuring the Rebel emblem have been altered, though only slightly. Statues and paintings of Confederate leaders in the statehouse are facing fresh criticism.

A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. now stands in a prominent corner on statehouse grounds, and lawmakers are gearing up for a debate next year over legislation that would allow local officials to remove Confederate statues. State law passed in 2001 gives the Legislature authority over such monuments.

In a 2015 interview, Deal said the change was meant to “show that we are a state that has come a very long way.”

“It’s hopefully a good faith effort on the part of state government to lower the degree of debate and discussion, and to show that we are a state that has come a very long way," he said. "We are tolerant of a lot of things. But we will also protect our heritage. But this was not one of those areas where I thought it was necessary to keep those labels associated with the holiday.”

The debate, of course, rages on.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which labeled the governor's move "an act of dishonor," recently sent an email to members notifying them it has hired a lobbying firm to help influence the debate over the thorny question of Confederate monuments in changing communities.

And Democrats are already mustering behind a proposal: Two Democratic legislators, Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur, have introduced legislation that would permit local governments to determine the fate of Confederate monuments on their ground.

Check out other recent AJC coverage of this issue:

Explore Long time coming: MLK statue unveiled at Georgia Capitol

Confederate group hires a lobbyist for a 2018 fight over statues

Georgia gears up for fraught legislative debate on Rebel monuments

Explore Abrams calls for removal of Confederate faces off Stone Mountain