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Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and the commonwealth’s lawmakers have taken a big step forward for needed racial healing–and simultaneously making a big statement for all Virginia voters–all while entirely sidestepping the controversy involving the Old Dominion’s Confederate-era statues.
A new law will replace an existing holiday honoring two Confederate generals, and instead will make Election Day a state holiday instead.
Gone will be the annual celebration of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, two of the most prominent Confederate generals in the US Civil War.
“We need to make Election Day a holiday,” Northam 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.”
Lee-Jackson Day has been observed on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The holiday was introduced in 1889 to celebrate Lee’s birthday (January 19) until 1904 when Jackson was added.
In 1984, Virginia’s General Assembly added Martin Luther King Jr., creating Lee-Jackson-King Day, but the controversial nature of the name combination led to the separation of the civil rights icon’s holiday from the two Confederate generals’ in 2000.
Making this change reflects the change in Virginia’s legislature, where Democrats took charge this year for the first time in a generation.
It also reflects the racial healing Northam pledged last year in the wake of the blackface scandal which nearly drove him from office.
Several states and cities have already made Election Day a civic holiday, including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, and New York.
Making Election Day a state holiday enables voters to be off work and get out to vote more easily.
These changes and others increasingly give Virginia the face of a “blue state,” which would have been nearly unthinkable even five to 10 years ago, when Republicans held a decades-long lock on control over the Virginia legislature.
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