Not one of the teachers with whom I work at Lee Arrendale State Prison knew that the state of Georgia officially observes Confederate Memorial Day. I found out last month from one of my classroom aides, an inmate who pointed out the date (April 27) on the official calendar of state holidays. When I told my fellow teachers they either were incredulous and speechless or accused me of making this up.
I’m not making it up. But very few people in Georgia know that Confederate Memorial Day is an official state holiday. Apparently all state offices are closed, and state prisons have a “down day” during which many regular activities (like classes at the charter high school within the prison) do not take place.
Since public schools remain open and have not celebrated Confederate Memorial Day since the early 1960s, and since other offices and businesses remain open as well, there’s really no reason anyone should even notice that this is a state holiday. The only people directly affected are state employees, most of whom are concentrated within the city of Atlanta.
So we were surprised and, in fact, offended that our state continues to remain in the 19th century by officially setting aside a day to honor a way of life that was based on the ownership, buying and selling of human beings. I say this as a descendant of Confederate veterans who include a planter who owned slaves and a yeoman farmer who never owned slaves. DNA testing has proven that I also am a descendant of slaves, Sub-Saharan West Africans of the Mandinka people from modern Senegal and of the Yoruba people from modern Nigeria.
But Georgia is not the only Southern state to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, although other states may recognize a different date:
Is this just honoring our heritage, as so many people here say? The state has observed the day since the end of the Civil War. When the Georgia legislature passed Senate Bill 27 in 2009, formally recognizing April as Confederate History and Heritage Month, they urged all Georgians to “honor, observe, and celebrate the Confederate States of America, its history, those who served in its armed forces and government, and all those millions of its citizens of various races and ethnic groups and religions who contributed in sundry and myriad ways to the cause which they held so dear.” This was a cause based on slavery, pure and simple. What message is this sending to the people of Georgia today, to state employees of all races, and to the inmates of state prisons, half of whom are non-white? What does it say to the American people, and the world?
Atlanta writer Payson Schwin, in an article published today, asks the same question and states,” I imagine most African-Americans, who make up 31 percent of the state’s population, might not want to celebrate the Confederacy. Nor would the Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans who make up 14 percent of the state, or any minority group for that matter. Nor would the millions of Northerners who have moved to Georgia over the past few decades, many of whom had ancestors fight for the Union. Come to think of it, I don’t think most white people like me who were born and raised in the South — owners of the Confederate flag license plate notwithstanding— identify in the slightest with Georgia’s antebellum culture of enslavement.”
By all means, people can remember and honor their Southern heritage; the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other re-enactment groups can stage battle re-enactments; people can fly the Confederate battle flag at their homes. They can put 100 battle flags on their front lawns or fly them from the aerials of their cars for all I care. (In fact, people do fly the flags from their cars where I live.) But can the state of Georgia please move into the 21st century and do away with Confederate Memorial Day as an official state holiday?
I suspect this post (assuming anyone reads it to the end) may cause me to lose some followers or some friends on Facebook. So be it.