Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Peaceful Transfer of Power

Yesterday I heard someone on the radio refer to "the peaceful transfer of power" that marks our country's presidential inauguration. I had never before thought about what a remarkable thing that is. In other countries, a change in presidents is often marked by corrupt elections, violence, even war. In our country, a change in presidents is celebrated over coffee between the new president and his predecessor.

Monday, January 19, 2009

He had a dream....

Confession. It wasn't until my freshman year of college that I realized that the rest of the world did not call the holiday on the third Monday of January "Lee-Jackson-King Day."

I have vivid memories of asking a friend at Davidson, "So, do we have class on Lee-Jackson-King Day?" The combination of her bewildered facial expression and stuttering, "What did you say?" was unforgettable. "Lee-Jackson-King Day," I said, "You know, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Martin Luther King. Do we have class on that holiday?" My clarification was followed by an eery silence and a look on her face that could only say, "Are you kidding?"

As I was talking recently with another friend from Virginia about the confusion our mention of L-J-K Day has brought to many a conversation, we wondered about the current status of Lee-Jackson-King Day in Virginia. (That'really is what we called it....it was on the county's school calendar and everything.) Here's what my friend found on Wikipedia:

"Lee-Jackson-King Day was a holiday celebrated in the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1984 to 2000. Robert E. Lee's birthday (January 19, 1807) has been celebrated as a Virginia holiday since 1889. In 1904, the legislature added the birthday of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson (January 21, 1824) to the holiday, and Lee-Jackson Day was born.

"In 1983, President Ronald Reagan approved an Act of Congress declaring January 15 to be a national holiday in honor of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Since 1978, Virginia had celebrated King's birthday in conjunction with New Year's Day. To align with the federal holiday, the Virginia legislature simply combined King's celebration with the existing Lee-Jackson holiday.

"The incongruous nature of the holiday, which simultaneously celebrated the lives of Confederate generals and a civil rights icon, did not escape the notice of Virginia lawmakers. In 2000, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore proposed splitting Lee-Jackson-King Day into two separate holidays, with Lee-Jackson Day to be celebrated the Friday before what would become Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The measure was approved and the two holidays are now celebrated separately."

I was quite heartened to read the last paragraph. Even though in my youth I was unaware that the rest of the county only celebrated Martin Luther King Jr on the third Monday in January, my friends and I still recognized the irony of celebrating Lee and Jackson right beside MLK, especially since we did not have any particular desire to celebrate the lives of the former two men. While that last statement may call into question my Virginian identity (and may incite a lecture from my brother-in-law), I always found there to be much more to celebrate in the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. I am very glad that he is now honored alone on the state calendars of Virginia.

I love that even a staticky, 46 year old recording of King's "I Have a Dream" speech can bring tears to my eyes. And for as much as I might disagree with many of the policies supported by Barack Obama, I am extremely proud to be a citizen of the county that elected him. It is beautiful that a country that once enslaved and oppressed African-Americans is now being led by one. I pray that Obama's presidency will inspire and challenge many people that, no matter how the odds might appear to be stacked against them, with hard work they too can achieve great things. Thank you, Dr. King for giving your life to making this a reality.