Martin Luther King Jr. Day would stand alone, separated from Arkansas’s dual observance with Robert E. Lee, under a proposal advanced by a Senate committee. On a voice vote Thursday, legislation passed to move the observance of Lee to October. Governor Asa Hutchinson led the cause to disjoin the Civil Rights leader and Confederate general.
“The fact is celebrating Martin Luther King on the same day as a Confederate general gives Arkansas a sense that you make a choice and this choice diminishes the contributions of Dr. King,” Hutchinson told committee members.
However, Hutchinson went on to say that Lee should not be diminished either. The governor will have to overcome some resistance from fellow Republicans. Senator Blake Johnson of Corning in northeast Arkansas counts himself among the opponents.
“This separation is just like segregation,” said Johnson after equating Lee’s fight for states’ rights with King’s quest for human rights.
Hutchinson argued the bill does not denigrate either men. Lee would not have a full fledged state holiday under the proposal but would be observed with a gubernatorial proclamation in October marking his death.
“I believe this action brings us together and does not diminish the life and work of other people in history. Whether Colonel Alexander Simpson Hutchinson, my ancestor, or General Robert E. Lee.” Hutchinson continued, “It does not diminish them. It simply says that history flows and it’s flowed rightfully into the Civil Rights era."
The October date for Lee drew some flak from Sen. Alan Clark of Garland County. He said he believes in the concept of separating the holiday saying, “y’all coming from a good place.” But the Republican senator thought it odd for the state to highlight Lee on the anniversary of his death.
The governor quickly replied that Christians celebrate the “continuum of life” which includes marking the death of Jesus and All Saints Day.
Clark also carried a general apprehension about any proposal that would effect how the government commemorates Confederate history. He said Arkansans are living in a day and time where people want to get rid of Confederate Square in Hot Springs. Clark said opposition to Confederate monuments and flags reminded him of the Taliban.
Clark briefly spoke afterward with former state Rep. Loy Mauch of neighboring Hot Spring County. Mauch is an opponent of the bill and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He is also a one-time member of the white, Southern nationalist League of the South.
Mauch told KUAR that the public was not given adequate notice of the proposal’s discussion in the Senate Education Committee. The bill was filed just yesterday and not on the agenda early Thursday morning.
Unlike multiple failed efforts in 2015, the committee room was nearly devoid of protestors this time around. Mauch promised to be back and with numbers.
“We’re going to be here to oppose it,” he said. “I guess we’re going to have to wait until the House side to that.”
The committee’s two African-American senators, Democrats Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock, backed the proposal. Elliott and Chesterfield emphasized provisions of the bill addressing how Civil War and Civil Rights history is taught.
Rep. Fred Love, another African-American, Democrat, and Little Rock denizen, sponsored one of the failed 2015 efforts. He said he will back the bill as it heads to the House. But he’s not particularly happy that Lee will still be observed by the state in a more limited fashion.
“I would say I would rather not have a day for him but sometimes you have to compromise,” said Love.
The bill now heads to the full Senate. Itis sponsored by two white Republicans, Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville) and Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers).
Arkansas is one of three states to celebrate Robert E. Lee on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.