Paul Greenberg / Jan. 19, 2009

Two Southerners, One Holiday

This is one of those years in which Robert E. Lee’s actual birthday falls on the date of the official observance of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s. Ideally, that’s the way it ought to be. They belong together. Both, after all, were sons of the South, and came to represent her highest traditions: courage, duty, faith. Even if not all of us may see it that way. For some still insist that a choice must be made: King or Lee, black or white, one or the other.

But why assume the holiday must honor one or the other? Why not both? Because, of course, they are such different figures in American history. They lived in such different times and fought for such different things. Besides, their loudest admirers tend to resent sharing their hero’s day with another so different – or maybe just with other, different Americans.

But if these two men were different, and they certainly were, they were different in the way two striking threads might be in the same rich, historical tapestry. There is nothing to prevent their being woven together in American mythology, and much to be gained.

To simple minds, myth is just something not true. To the more thoughtful, myth is something truer than fact. As in the Greek myths.

You can tell a lot about a people by the myths it has chosen to perpetuate, or combine. That we can observe the birthdays of both Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King at the same time is a tribute to more than the curious coincidences of the calendar. When different Americans celebrate the same past, that is the surest sign we share the same future.

The ability of a King to rise above race, like the ability of a Lee to outlast the Lost Cause, is a tribute to the character of each. So long as both are recognized as heroes, there will be no segregated American future. History is powerless to break asunder what myth has joined.

Granted, it would be hard to imagine two more different types: One was a great general (some would say the greatest American general) and the other an apostle of nonviolence. One remains an alabaster knight, so far from the madding crowd as to be almost a political naif, and the other was a mass organizer and preacher, a politician extraordinaire who didn’t need public office to mobilize and change a nation; his arena was the national conscience.

Yet these two historical figures have much in common. Both were profoundly Southern each in his own way. For example, both were talented rhetoricians, even if one preferred a stoic brevity and the other was at home in the rolling, repetitive cadences of the black church, which may be as close as our time can come to the spirit of the Psalms. Most telling, and most Southern, each followed a code of his own. Perhaps that is why both could be utterly serene in the midst of whirling confusion.

If one hero exalted duty and the other love, those can both be different names for self-sacrifice. Both knew victory and defeat, and neither defined those words as the world might. It might be said of their styles that one was aristocratic and the other plebeian, one Greek and the other Hebrew, one stoic and the other Christian. What a tribute to the varieties of Southern experience.

General Lee and Dr. King make a striking combination, like two sides of a single coin, but such combinations are not unusual in American history and myth. A country that can celebrate both Jefferson and Hamilton, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, Lincoln and Lee, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and Ronald Reagan … already has proved that it can absorb the most unlikely combinations of heroes and their qualities.

What was it Jefferson said in his First Inaugural? “We are all Republicans – we are all Federalists.” Today we are all admirers of Robert E. Lee and followers of Martin Luther King. Or should be. Their virtues have proven not contradictory but complementary.

From time to unfortunate time, some will try to create a national identity on the basis of only certain, politically acceptable virtues. They cannot tolerate, much less celebrate, any others. Or they may dream of an American nationality on the European model of blood and iron, and exclude those who don’t meet some racial test. They will fail because they don’t understand that ours is a nation based not on blood but on an idea – or rather a grand, Whitmanesque kaleidoscope of ideas ever changing, forming and combining, like wave after intersecting wave. The way the American language keeps changing.

The observance of King’s birthday is still relatively recent, its combination with Lee’s still a piquant irony. But when both occasions cease to be official, artificial exercises, and become natural, universally accepted holidays, like Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, or even Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, then another part of the American tapestry will have been completed, another peace made with ourselves. And what once divided will unite. From old discords there will emerge a single resplendent chord. From out of many, one.


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