What Is Confederate Memorial Day? Alabama Still Celebrates Its Pro-Slavery History

ByMonica Busch
Ty Wright/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In one Southern state on Monday, all state offices and state courts were closed for the day, though not due to a federal holiday. The reason, it turns out, is because in Alabama, Confederate Memorial Day is a legally sanctioned holiday, and has been since 1901.

The holiday's origins trace back to the mid-19th century, just a year after the American Civil War ended. Originally, it was organized by the Ladies' Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia, which in 1866 decided to observe a day in remembrance of fallen Confederate soldiers. Many other former Confederate states opted to follow suit, and at the turn of the century, Alabama codified the celebration.

On its 152nd anniversary, only two states formally celebrate a Confederate memorial day. One is Alabama, the other is Mississippi, whose holiday takes place every year on the last Monday of April. Florida and South Carolina observe Confederate Memorial Day in April, though it is not a state holiday in either place.

Georgia also celebrated a Confederate memorial day until 2015, after which it was renamed as "State Holiday." Similarly, Texas has a so-called "Confederate Heroes Day" holiday, though it takes place on Jan. 19, Robert E. Lee's birthday.

Alabama's Confederate Memorial Day is controversial because opponents feel it seeks to pay tribute to a rebel military that largely fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Notably, it's not the only Alabama holiday reserved for remembering the Civil War — Alabama also celebrates Robert E. Lee's birthday in January and Confederate President Jefferson Davis' birthday in in June.

While the Civil War is frequently reduced in high school textbooks to a disagreement over states' rights and where their authority ends, the right that Confederate states were largely focused on preserving was the right to have slaves. This is evidenced in Alabama's Confederate-era state constitution, written after it seceded from the Union. The first point in the constitution's section about slavery explicitly prohibits any future law from dismantling the institution, reading, "No slave in this State shall be emancipated by any act done to take effect in this State, or any other country."

The Alabama holiday continues to be celebrated, even as debates ensue about the ongoing removal of Confederate memorials and monuments all around the country. Those who oppose removing the memorials echo the same arguments expressed by those who support celebrating a Confederate memorial day. Largely, they say, they are memorializing their ancestors who died fighting in what was, ultimately, an American war.

Even some progressive-leaning voices have expressed interest in keeping the monuments, arguing that, if nothing else, they serve as reminders for what virulent racism can do. However, just as with the Confederate flag, opponents see such memorials as honoring a deadly, toxic institution that abused and dehumanized an entire class of people who were forced to the United States just to be misused.

As might be expected, many on Twitter were quick to express their outrage that such a holiday continues to be celebrated. "Confederate Memorial Day is the day the 'party of Lincoln' celebrates the Confederate soldiers who wanted to kill Lincoln," remarked one user. "Why do Southerners even celebrate Confederate Memorial Day?" wrote another. "Don’t get this attachment to the biggest group of losers in US history. The same people who keep telling liberals to get over losing the 2016 election can’t get over losing in 1865."

One historian pointed out the explicitly racist undertones in the holiday, describing the holiday as a direct insult to every African-American in Alabama. "The state of Alabama could not have found a better way to give the middle finger to every African American citizen in the state," he tweeted. "During the same week that a new lynching memorial will be dedicated, the state observes Confederate History Month."

For the time being, the holiday will remain on the books. It serves as a reminder that neither the Civil War nor what it was fought over is truly in the American past.