Monday is, of course, a national holiday in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In Mississippi it is also a state holiday that includes recognition of the birthday of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
To many, it’s an incomprehensible juxtaposition, but so is much of Mississippi and Southern history.
Most people see no commonality or connection between King and Lee. Yet if the two men were to meet, I suspect they would understand and appreciate each other more than we might imagine.
The surface contradictions are obvious. Lee was an icon of the Confederacy, which was committed to maintaining slavery. King sought to make the federal government live up to the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment, a promise that had been neglected since Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Lee was a warrior, King an apostle of nonviolence. The flag under which Lee fought was often waved in the faces of King and his followers a century later in defiance of their demands for full citizenship.
So on what common ground could the two possibly meet?
For starters, both were Southerners. More than that, they loved the South – not out of blindness to its flaws but because it was so much a part of who they were.
They both possessed an unusually strong sense of duty. Each answered its call, reluctantly, when the alternative would have been easier. Neither had planned for the role that would mark them in history.
King had before him a comfortable, secure career as a church pastor when he was talked into leading the Montgomery bus boycott because, being new to town, he was the only one who could pull all the factions together. Lee, already offered the Union command but unwilling to lift a sword against his neighbors, could have retreated into quiet retirement at his country estate as the Civil War loomed. Instead, he saw it as his duty to defend his native Virginia and accepted the command of its army.
Both men valued some principles above life itself, and were ready to die for them, as King did. For King, it was racial justice and reconciliation. For Lee, it was duty, honor and country, which he defined as Virginia.
On both men were pinned the hopes of legions in a time of great tumult in the South. Both represented the best qualities of leadership, civility and, yes, Christian charity that the South in all its complexities and paradoxes has produced since blacks and whites, Africans and Europeans, settled and built it together.
Most important, both men sought healing and reconciliation. Neither ever became bitter toward his foes.
King knew hate was a destroyer, of the hater more than the hated. He preached against returning fire with fire, and the only weapon he advocated was relentless love for the enemy. Lee, in the few years he lived after the war, sought to heal its deep wounds and reunite the country.
The story is told of Lee’s gesture in church one Sunday when a black man visited and went to the altar for communion. No one in the congregation followed. Lee, a few pews back, got up and walked to the altar and knelt beside the man. Imagine the power of that moment. It may not seem like much to us now, but it must have spoken volumes to those people then.
Finally, both King and Lee were men of unique strength of character. Both had their shortcomings, their human frailties. But their inner moral compass and their gifts of leadership lifted them up as beacons for their times.
They wouldn’t discount the great divide between them and their understanding – shaped by the culture of their times – of what constitutes a just and equitable world. But somehow, I suspect, they would find a way to build a bridge across it.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is adapted from an earlier column.