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Virginia to eliminate state holiday honoring Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson

Instead, the state will make Election Day a day off

Robert E. Lee statue (CNN)
Robert E. Lee statue (CNN) (KSAT)

VIRGINIA – Virginia is one step closer to ending its tradition of honoring Confederate generals.

This week, the Virginia House voted to strike Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. The holiday, observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, honors Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson as "defenders of causes."

Both men owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery in the US.

In its place, the House bill proposed that the state replace it with Election Day, the first Tuesday after the First Monday in November, instead.

Gov. Ralph Northam included the measure in his 2020 legislative proposals. If Election Day becomes a state holiday, he said, it'll be easier for Virginians to vote.

"We need to make Election Day a holiday," he said in his State of the Commonwealth speech last month. "We can do it by ending the Lee-Jackson holiday that Virginia holds ... It commemorates a lost cause. It's time to move on."

The Virginia Senate passed an identical bill last month. Both chambers will need to approve the legislation before it appears before Northam.

Election Day is already a holiday in some states

Several states and cities have already made Election Day a civic holiday, including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky and New York. State offices typically close, though it depends on the state whether employees are entitled to paid time off to vote.

Proponents say making Election Day a holiday could improve voter turnout. But Election Day may not become a federal holiday anytime soon -- it's drawn deep division along party lines.

In January 2019, Democrats proposed a sweeping bill that would make Election Day a national holiday among other measures. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the measure would pay government workers to "hang out at the polls during an election" or campaign for candidates.

Supporters say Lee-Jackson Day honors history

Lee-Jackson Day, founded more than 100 years ago, is observed with Civil War-themed parades, wreath layings and reenactments hosted by Confederate memorial groups, though these celebrations are increasingly unpopular. Defenders of the holiday say it honors Virginia history.

"I think Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are some of the greatest men to have ever lived," a supporter named Carson Via told the Roanoke Times at last month's Lee-Jackson Day celebration in Lexington while dressed in a Civil War uniform. "Great men, and we're all getting washed away."

Virginia has struggled to confront its Confederate legacy in recent years. In April, a Virginia judge ruled that statues of Lee and Jackson in Charlottesville were "war monuments" that the city couldn't remove without permission from the state.

The city had previously covered the statues with tarp to mourn the deaths of left counterprotestor Heather Heyer and two state troopers who died during the 2017 white nationalist rally.

Confederate holidays still observed in Southern states

Confederate Memorial Day is still a statutory holiday in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Alabama also observes Lee's and Jefferson Davis' birthdays as their own state holidays, though the state combines Lee's birthday with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

In 2015, Georgia renamed the day "State Holiday" to strike mention of Lee and the Confederacy, though it still falls on the same day.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a proclamation in July declaring a holiday for a Confederate Army General and early Ku Klux Klan member. And Florida and Texas informally observe Confederate Memorial Day without closing state offices, according to Vox.