On the 119th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the ''Old Dominion'' has taken a symbolic retreat from the past. Gov. Charles S. Robb signed into law on April 9 a bill that makes the third Monday in January a state holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
Virginians have traditionally set aside that day to celebrate the memory of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson.
The holiday will now be known as Lee-Jackson-King Day.
''This has not been an easy day to come,'' Governor Robb said as he signed the bill. ''It was not easy to confront an issue not seen in the same light by all Virginians.''
Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans urged Robb to veto the measure, which passed both houses of the General Assembly in February.
''The memory of Lee and Jackson is sacred to the hearts of all true Virginians,'' said Forest Tucker, commander of the group's Virginia Division. ''To replace our heroes with Martin Luther King or any other non-Virginian is to betray the greatness of our heritage as a commonwealth.''
But state Sen. L.Douglas Wilder, who led a decade-long battle to win a state holiday honoring Dr. King, said that the measure is a ''statement of peace and good will.''
''The bill makes the dream possible,'' Senator Wilder said. ''There are those who never believed this moment would take place. But it did.''
Last year, the United States Congress established the third Monday in January as a federal holiday for Dr. King, beginning in 1986.