Three Heroes, One Odd Holiday for Virginians
By Linda Wheeler
Lee-Jackson-King Day, Virginia's peculiar holiday that links two Civil War generals and a civil rights leader today, may have the distinction of never having been celebrated as a joint occasion. As in years past, there are birthday anniversaries planned for Gen. Robert E. Lee and for Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but not all together.
The hybrid holiday is generally credited to, or blamed on, then-state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D), who battled for years to get King's birthday recognized and finally did so in 1984. However, Wilder said that combining the three was never his intention and that he wished it had never happened.
"They got lumped together, this day, Lee-Jackson-King," he said in a telephone interview from Texas where he was speaking at an event honoring King. "It shouldn't be that way."
But his statement conflicts with news stories in 1985, in which he was quoted as saying he didn't mind the three being joined.
Wilder said the intention of his bill was for the King holiday to be celebrated on Jan. 15, the actual birthday. Lee-Jackson Day already existed and was routinely celebrated on Jan. 19, Lee's birthday. However, there was already state legislation in place to move legal holidays to the Monday closest to the actual event, he said.
Wilder said that when other holidays were shifted to Mondays, King's day and Lee-Jackson Day got moved by the legislative research office to the third Monday in January. In 1986, the third Monday in January was designated as the federal observance of King's birthday.
Wilder said Saturday that he was aware that Virginians did not celebrate Lee-Jackson-King Day. He said he planned to be in Richmond today and would observe the day as King's birthday.
"I never objected to Lee-Jackson Day," he said. "History can't be changed. People are entitled to their heroes."
Tomorrow, on Lee's birthday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Alexandria will hold their annual banquet, continuing a tradition that dates to about 1890.
According to T. Michael Miller, research historian for the Office of Historic Alexandria, the R.E. Lee Camp, Confederate Veterans began the annual event shortly after the General Assembly created the holiday. In a Jan. 19, 1891, edition of the Alexandria Gazette, he found a story that said the Lee Camp would "form at the Columbia engine house and march in a body to the hotel where the committee of arrangements have made elaborate preparations for the banquet."
Yesterday, a celebration was held in Alexandria at the building known officially as the Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee. In the kitchen of the house where Lee lived until he was 18 years old, assistant curator Molly Monaghan offered chocolate cake to visitors.
"Come say happy birthday to Robert," she said repeatedly. "This is his 197th birthday."
Betsy Scott Fitzmeyer, of Burke, said she came to the celebration because Lee was "a fair, honest and decent man." Jim Durnan, of Washington, said he thought the event was a good idea because "it helps the public know more about Robert E. Lee."
Jackson's birthday, Jan. 21, will be noted in Lexington by the Virginia Military Institute, where he taught before the Civil War. Col. Michael M. Strickler, a VMI spokesman, said cadets would continue a long tradition of honoring Jackson on his birthday by placing a wreath at his statue in the Lexington cemetery where he is buried.
Jackson's birthday will also be observed that day at the house in Lexington where he lived while he taught at VMI, and Stonewall Jackson House curator Megan Haley said the usual $5 tour fee will be waived for the day.
The separate celebrations indicate to Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Governmental Studies, that any discomfort about the holiday has faded.
"This was a headline item back in the '80s, but it seems minor to people in 1999," he said. "Most people celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Those who feel strongly about the legacy of Lee and Jackson, they do their thing."
Wilder maintains the joint holiday needs to be changed.
"I invite the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy and anyone else who who wants to join with me, to push to have separate holidays," he said. "Virginians like to be independent."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company