Arkansas Ends Dual Holiday Celebrating Robert E. Lee, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mar 21, 2017
Originally published on March 31, 2017 4:07 pm
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The third Monday in January is a federal holiday, Martin Luther King Day. In three southern states, it's also been a day to honor Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Now make that just two states. After today, Arkansas will no longer celebrate these two very different men on the same day. Jacob Kauffman of member station KUAR reports.

JACOB KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: With dozens of onlookers, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law the end of the state's dual holiday. When Bill Clinton was governor in 1985, he joined Lee and King Day together. But with the stroke of a pen, Hutchinson said he was sending a signal to the nation that King should stand alone.

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ASA HUTCHINSON: To be quite honest, I expected this debate would divide us. But instead, during the debate, we listened to each other, and the conversation brought us together.

KAUFFMAN: And for George McGill, one of the state's most senior lawmakers and an African-American, seeing the bill signed into law was a healing moment.

GEORGE MCGILL: I'm just - I'm thrilled it happened in my lifetime. It's a very humbling experience. I've lived long enough to know the impact of this.

KAUFFMAN: Robert E. Lee is still commemorated under the new law, moved to a separate memorial day in October. Governor Hutchinson emphasized Arkansans should still be proud of Confederate heritage.

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HUTCHINSON: It does not diminish them whether Colonel Alexander Simpson Hutchinson, my ancestor, or General Robert E. Lee.

KAUFFMAN: But that's poor consolation for defenders of the Confederacy. Throughout the political debate over the past few weeks, lawmakers wrestled with political correctness and how to interpret history. During discussions in the Arkansas House, Representative Jana De La Rosa said she's never been so mad about a bill.

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JANA DE LA ROSA: We are taking Robert E. Lee, and we are putting him in the basement. And we are acting like we are embarrassed that he ever existed.

KAUFFMAN: With Arkansas's decision today, only Mississippi and Alabama will have dual observances of Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day. Lee's home state of Virginia abandoned the practice back in 2000. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Kauffman in Little Rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAKE SONG, "SACRIFICES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.