The Friday after Thanksgiving is an official state holiday in Georgia, although not for what you might think:
Happy Birthday, Robert E. Lee!
If that made you do a double-take, you are not alone.
Lee’s birthday — while actually on Jan. 19 —- will be observed in the Peach State on Nov. 23, bookending the April observance of Confederate Memorial Day as Georgia’s salute to two “holidays” on the decline, even in the South.
While no one questions the state’s prominence in the Confederacy and the Civil War’s impact within its borders, there are those who wonder whether it is time for Georgia to leave that narrative to historians amid a growing generational divide.
Then there are those who didn’t know it was a holiday, period.
“I wasn’t even aware there was a Robert E. Lee holiday. That’s funny,” said state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, a 12-year legislator, chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and native Atlantan. “Is it time to move past it? I think we already have. I don’t know of anyone who celebrates Robert E. Lee’s birthday.”
That wasn’t true more than 140 years ago.
Savannah became the first city in America to celebrate Lee’s birthday as a public holiday, holding its first commemoration of the occasion on Jan. 19, 1871.
Authorization for the holiday came in October 1870 after news of Lee’s death reached the city, where Lee was first assigned years earlier following his graduation from West Point, according to the University System of Georgia’s GeorgiaInfo history website.
Fifty years later, in 1924, 20,000 people attended the unveiling at Stone Mountain of the partially completed carving of Lee’s head.
And so it went, through Jim Crow and segregation, the Civil Rights Movement and after President Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law in 1983. Community celebrations faded, however, with one minor exception: In 2007, a Confederate honor guard marched into the Capitol to commemorate the general’s 200th birthday.
Until 1984, Georgia’s official state holidays specifically noted Lee’s Birthday on Jan. 19, Confederate Memorial Day on April 26 and former Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ Birthday on June 3.
That year, however, the state Legislature made changes.
They officially dropped the actual names of all official state holidays — including Thanksgiving and Christmas. They then also gave the governor a mandate that still exists: He or she must choose at least one of three dates — Jan. 19, April 26 or June 3 — and designate a day during the year “to commemorate the event or events now observed by such dates.”
Davis’ birthday dropped by the wayside but the result has traditionally meant state observances of Lee’s Birthday (usually on the day after Thanksgiving) and Confederate Memorial Day. Georgia’s tradition will continue at least through next year, when state agencies will be closed April 22 for Confederate Memorial Day. Lee’s Birthday will be observed Nov. 29
Yet the state continues to grow more diverse, according to the U.S. Census, with demographic shifts that show an increase in African-American, Latino and Asian-American residents in areas especially in metro Atlanta.
There are also generational shifts at play, including among the state’s white population, said Keith Bohannon, a history professor at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. He studies Georgia history and the Civil War.
“Most of the students who come in today don’t identify very strongly with the confederacy and don’t revere and respect it the way their grandparents did,” said Bohannon, whose students mostly come from Atlanta suburbs and rural counties in the western part of the state.
Those same students, he said, are “willing to look at this most destructive episode in American history with an open mind.” The Lee holiday, Bohannon said, likely resonates only “among a diminishing percentage of the population.”
Georgia isn’t the only state to make those observances, although there aren’t many left that do.
Only Mississippi and Alabama still officially observe all three days, including combining Lee’s Birthday with the observance of MLK Day. Arkansas observes just Lee’s Birthday — also on MLK Day — although it also honors civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates in February. South Carolina commemorates Confederate Memorial Day in May. Virginia in January marks “Lee-Jackson Day” — for the birthdays of Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
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