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Revisiting the cradle of the Confederacy on Lee-Jackson day

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In case I really needed to be reminded that I had come to the South to attend law school at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., all I needed to do was to drive along Lee Highway in Arlington, Virginia; go a little further south to see the stars and bars proudly displayed on various pickup trucks; or go to Richmond’s avenue of statues of Confederate figures, with Arthur Ashe’s statue added only later, and much farther down the avenue.

I passed the Mason-Dixon line after crossing into Maryland from Pennsylvania. Maryland has its own recent shameful past with blatant racial segregation. Then again, as we approach Martin Luther King, Jr., Day this Monday, although the world has made major strides towards less virulent and widespread racism, racism remains too virulent and too rampant in the United States and beyond.

I chose to live where I live, and I am not going to avoid remnants of the Confederacy rearing their heads in Virginia and further south, unless I keep my head buried in the ground. Virginia is the place where a confederate soldier statue pointing his rifle greets visitors to the Loudoun County courthouse courtyard, where a skilfully engraved likeness of Robert E. Lee greets visitors to the Culpeper Circuit Court clerk’s office, and where a couple named Loving had to go straight to the United States Supreme Court in the 1960’s to reverse Virginia’s criminal ban on intermarriage between black and white people.

Yesterday I was re-reminded of my geographical location when an amiable courthouse criminal clerk expressed her giddiness over the approaching Lee-Jackson Day, celebrated today, that always gives Virginia’s state and local government employees a four-day weekend, when we add Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. I will treat today as a regular day, and will be in Maryland court as the Virginia courts close today and reopen next Tuesday.

Today in Virginia is [Robert E.] Lee-[Stonewall] Jackson Day. Consequently, instead of the four-day weekend being a means of paying penance for Virginia’s shameful centuries-long role with slavery and segregation right into the second half of the 1960’s, here is the real story:

Until 2000, Virginia set the same date for celebrating Lee-Jackson day and Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, until legislation passed to separate the two holidays with Lee-Jackson Day falling on the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. The Roanoke, Virginia, Times quotes a regional Virginia NAACP leader as follows on this peculiar holiday juxtaposition:

"The Rev. Glenn Orr, president of the Montgomery County-Radford City-Floyd County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said it’s not a matter that members dwell on. ‘We’re really focused on honoring Dr. King rather than trying to tell somebody they can’t honor Lee, Jackson,’ Orr said. ‘We just celebrate our opportunity to remember Dr. King and the values that he helped us to develop.’"

Having visited the Washington, D.C./Virginia area three times before starting law school here in 1986, I knew full well that I was going to the South, at least when crossing the border into Virginia. As with probably many others, I was drawn to Washington, D.C., with the possibility of getting involved in what was going on in the nation’s capital. Ultimately, my resulting law practice is only relevant to the federal government for a small part of my law practice other than for my federal criminal defense work.

Like Reverend Orr, this weekend I will do my best to focus on Dr. King, and to transcend my with the close juxtaposition of the Lee-Jackson Day celebration. 

Times change. In the 1980’s, Virginia elected an African-American governor, Douglas Wilder. Twice, a majority of voting Virginians voted for Barack Obama, our nation’s first African-American president. Northern Virginia, for one, is in many ways a greater Washington, D.C., with transplants from all around the country and throughout the world.