In Cullman County, Alabama, a local government vote stirred up 150 years of angst when Revenue Commissioner Barry Willingham wanted to keep the local courthouse open on Confederate Memorial Day.
For years, on the fourth Monday in April people showed up to the courthouse to buy car tags and fishing licenses, unaware that it was closed for the state holiday, which is officially observed in Alabama, Willingham explained. Businesses, schools and even offices in neighboring counties stay open, Willingham said, so people complained about the local government not doing the same. He understood their frustration.
“It’s not a prominent holiday,” said Willingham, who was born and raised in Cullman County, about 50 miles north of Birmingham. “I don’t think Microsoft adds Confederate Memorial Day to my Outlook.”
Usually, the holiday passes largely unnoticed, even by the local press.
But that didn’t happen this year. County officials voted to stay open on Confederate Memorial Day and instead close Cullman County’s government doors on Good Friday, a day when there’s less demand for county services. After that vote, people told Willingham and his colleagues that they “ought to be ashamed of dishonoring our Confederate veterans,” he explained.
“It’s still going to be a holiday, ain’t no way we can change that fact,” he said. “We’re just not closing the courthouse.”
Alabama closes its government offices today in observance of Confederate Memorial Day, along with Mississippi and Georgia. On May 10, South Carolina government offices will close in observance of the state holiday.
Of the 11 Southern states that made up the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, few agreed on what date was best for remembrance once the war officially ended in 1865. Shortly after the war was declared over, a group of women in Columbus, Georgia, gathered for the first Confederate Memorial Day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers and rededicate themselves to the memory of those men and the war they fought.
Today, dates of state observance are scattered from April to June and are loosely associated with the Confederacy’s surrender to Sherman on April 26, the death of Stonewall Jackson on May 10 or the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on June 3. This year, Texas celebrated Confederate Heroes Day on Jan. 19. That also happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In Mississippi, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann issued a proclamation to tell state employees and officers they had the day off, in accordance with a 1972 state statute.
“I believe observance of Confederate Memorial Day is set by statute,” said Nicole Webb, spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Bryant, referring to the 1972 measure. “Elected lawmakers at that time would have voted on the issue. I know other states also observe it.”
This year, Georgia’s government officials have prioritized Confederate Memorial Day as a state holiday, along with Christmas Day and Thanksgiving. However, there seems to be more reluctance to talk about why the Capitol and state agencies close in observance of the holiday 150 years after the end of the Civil War.
When the NewsHour asked Brian Robinson, the communications director for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, via e-mail for comment about why it was important for Georgians to remember Confederate Memorial Day, Robinson simply wrote “no thanks.”
State officials still mark Confederate Memorial Day on their calendars, but it makes sense why they may not want to embrace the holiday publicly, said John Neff, director of the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi and a scholar of Civil War death and remembrance.
Dating back to 2000, the debates about whether states should fly the Confederate battle flag could be partially to blame, he explained. Several Southern states were embroiled in these fights, holding legislative votes and public referendums that revived the Confederacy as a politically sensitive issue.
That year in South Carolina, state legislators agreed to remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol dome in Columbia. In a 2001 statewide referendum, a majority of Mississippi’s voters chose to keep the Confederate battle flag emblem on the state’s banner as it remains today. In 2003, Georgia rid itself of the Confederate battle flag from its state flag, following a legislative action and a public referendum.
State observance of Confederate Memorial Day, however, is not a cynical or political expression, Neff said, especially among people who still place fresh flowers and Confederate battle flags on graves each year.
“It seems odd in many ways, but you don’t have to live in the South very long to know this is a deep connection that many people still feel,” he said.
Many people across the South claim the Confederacy as part of their heritage, he said.
“I can say this is very much a part of many white Southerners’ identity. This is how they feel connected to their place, their time, their families,” Neff said. “I think it’s going to be a long, long time before there’s no one in the South that feels those connections.”
Members of Boyd Brown’s family fought for the Confederacy, but the real estate agent and retired Democrat state legislator from Winnsboro, S.C., said he also thinks Confederate Memorial Day should not be a state holiday.
“Those who want to observe it, observe it, but do it on your own time and in your own hearts,” Brown said. “I don’t think we need to mandate that state employees take the time off for a holiday that can be offensive to some folks.”
In 2012 when he was still in office, Brown vocally opposed South Carolina state employees taking the day off on Confederate Memorial Day at a time when he said lawmakers needed to address pressing legislation. He also said that he could understand people taking Confederate Memorial Day off in 1961 to mark the centennial anniversary of the start of the Civil War, “but we’re in 2015 now.”
“You look at it, and think, ‘Really? Is this still an issue?’” he said.