After several years and multiple failed attempts, a renewed effort to remove Arkansas’s celebration of Robert E. Lee from the state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. is headed for a final vote. An Arkansas House committee advanced the Senate-approved bill Tuesday evening on a voice vote. Arkansas is one of three states to mark King and Lee on the same day.
Governor Asa Hutchinson has made the matter a priority this legislative session and has twice testified in committee. He told House lawmakers he wanted this year to be different than 2015 efforts. “I stayed in my office upstairs quietly for the bill that gave Dr. King a holiday. I had other priorities in that session and I did not lift a finger to help.”
But it was the governor’s nephew, Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, who perhaps most captivated lawmakers. The Republican from Gravette said his experience in the Senate debate compelled him to testify to the House committee. Hendren said growing up in a small town in northwest Arkansas he didn't have much exposure to African-Americans and was later blessed with getting to learn and share experiences with people of all races while serving in the military.
“I watched some of my colleagues right across the table from me be hurt by some of the things that were said and it was offensive to me. I determined then I was going to come down here and try to represent that we can do better. Those of us who have a deep faith know that one of the things we're taught is that we should esteem others better than ourselves,” he said.
Hendren continued, “The fact that these holidays are joint may not be offensive to you but the fact is you should know that it is offensive to many of your colleagues and your friends.”
The senator said he recently talked with his colleague, Democratic Senator Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, after watching the movie Hidden Things about her experiences as an African-American woman. Hendren said the conversation moved him and let him in on a world and life alien to his own experiences.
Long-time Civil Rights leader John Walker, a Democratic state Representative from Little Rock, stood up to shake Hendren’s hand after his remarks. No African-American members on the committee opted to speak in favor of the bill though they do support the bill. Rep. Walker did ask several questions.
Several lawmakers in the Arkansas Black Legislative Caucus have said they prefer the state stop honoring Lee altogether but are accepting of the compromise, which moves Lee’s observance to October in order for King to stand alone in January.
Lee’s new date would not be an equivalent of a state holiday but instead would be marked by a gubernatorial proclamation.
The bill also has components to change how civil rights and Civil War history is taught, with legislators getting a say on a to-be-developed curriculum drafted by state education officials.
Arkansas Sons of Confederate Veterans Commander Robert Edwards was among a contingency of SCV in the room. The group and unaffiliated re-enactors and self-styled heritage supporters dominated much of the 2015 committee hearings.
He preferred keeping the current state calendar but said he was willing to go along with moving Lee to a different day in January as long it stays a state holiday instead of an observance via gubernatorial proclamation. Edwards wants Arkansans to choose between taking off for Lee or King Day.
His prevailing argument was echoed by other opponents testifying to the committee as well as a state senator in last week’s senate committee debate. Edwards said separating the two men is a strike against diversity.
Edwards referenced the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board, “It is not a division of holidays it is the elimination of Robert E. Lee and ‘separate is not equal.’”
The head of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, Rizelle Aaron, wasn’t pleased that Lee received any form of continuing observance from the state. But he said he could live with it and that King standing alone would “begin to help some of us to have a sense of relief.”
Aaron said he looks forward to a time when he doesn’t “have to explain to my grandchildren, when they’re ready to ask those questions, why we celebrate the history of slavery and the history of civil rights on the same day.”
Perhaps foreshadowing future debates over new curriculum development spurred by the bill, State Rep. Stephen Meeks had some issue with associating Lee too closely with slavery. “Slavery divides us among race when the reality of the situation is there were white and black slave owners.”
Asking a question to a member of the public testifying to place Lee on George Washington’s birthday, Rep. Walker chose not to impugn Lee’s morality but said he doesn’t belong in the same category.
“Lee was a warrior…there should be some difference accorded to generals who fight and lead the charge and those who set the tenor and the course of what the war is about,” said Walker. “He is not to be regarded as a Southern bigot but nonetheless he adapted to that side and became an extended symbol and Dr. King sought to erase that symbol.”
The bill sponsored by Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers) and Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville) is headed the House floor for what could be the final vote.