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Martin Luther King or Robert E. Lee

Op-ed by David W. Marshall

David W. Marshall. File photo.

Since 1983, the third Monday in January represents the day in which the life of Dr. Martin Luther King is celebrated with a federal holiday. For southerners, devotion to their Confederate heritage remains deep and long lasting.

As a result, several states added the celebration of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee to the same day as the King Holiday. While states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas eventually removed the joint celebration, Alabama and Mississippi still honors Lee with King. Both men are considered to be American icons, but for opposing reasons.
The joint celebration is truly a contradiction of ideology. Would a person who admires Robert E. Lee and what he stood for as a Confederate also be an admirer of Martin Luther King and what he stood for as a civil rights leader?

In many ways, the South has never gotten over the Civil War. Robert E. Lee will always be a timeless hero throughout the South despite leading an army that conducted “slave hunts” of free Black Americans.

Despite being a slave owner who ordered his slaves whipped and families separated. Despite leading a Confederate army that slaughtered Black Union soldiers while attempting to surrender. After the war, he continued to fight against efforts to give Black Americans their rights as citizens.

While Lee continues to be seen as a Confederate leader worthy of appreciation, does it matter to southerners that he was indicted by a grand jury in Norfolk, Virginia for treason?

The grand jury charged him with “wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously” carrying on a war against the Constitution and the “peace and dignity” of the United States of America. During the Civil War era, a Confederate was a person who saw themselves as a southerner first. Their allegiance was to their states over the federal authority of the United States government.

This deep loyalty to the beloved South became a major part of the southern identity and culture which is still embraced today. It would not be wrong to question the American patriotism of someone who still embraces Confederate figure and beliefs. Especially as we are currently witnessing the reemergence of white nationalism in addition to challenges to constitutional and ethical norms.

All parts of the southern culture and customs are not bad, but we can never forget that the institution of slavery was the greatest influence to the southern beliefs and way of life. From slavery came the economy of cheap labor, racial hatred, disregard for humanity, distrust of outsiders, Christian hypocrisy and white supremacy. Each one became embedded in the unique culture of the South, and remained part of the southern identity long after slavery was ended.

As a pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King at times spoke about his disappointment with the white church. When he took on a leadership role during the civil rights movement, he felt white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be their strongest allies.

Instead, some were outright opponents refusing to understand and support the freedom movement concerning people of color. It seems hypocritical for the region of the nation which were former slaves and Jim Crow states to refer to itself as the Bible Belt. When people from Bible Belt states consistently choose Jim Crow over the teachings of Jesus Christ, we would not be wrong in questioning their Christianity.

The ideas of “love your neighbor as you love yourself” or “treat others the way you want to be treated” often gets lost in a culture and customs deeply rooted in the economy of cheap labor, racial hatred, disregard for humanity, distrust of outsiders, Christian hypocrisy and white supremacy.

Since a large amount of the South’s population consists of Black citizens, is the Bible Belt description for the South inclusive of Black Christians and their interests or is it primarily referencing socially conservative Protestants?

In a Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, nearly eight-in-ten Black Americans (79 percent) identify as Christian. By comparison, seven-in-ten Americans overall (71 percent) say they are Christian, including 70 percent of whites and 77 percent of Latinos. Meanwhile, about seven-in-ten Blacks are Protestant, compared with less than half the public overall (47 percent), including 48 percent of whites.

Is the cultural meaning behind the term “Bible Belt” a true description of the South in a racial, moral and spiritual sense? For those still celebrating Confederate hero’s, Robert E. Lee is the leader dear to their hearts, but history has proven Martin Luther King was the true American and one who led with love, compassion and faith.

~ David W. Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body, and author of the book God Bless Our Divided America. He can be reached at