Will this be the year Arkansas will end the official recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day? Gov. Asa Hutchinson hopes it is, as do Democratic lawmakers. Several local and state leaders used the national MLK holiday on Monday to call for a change.
Following the Little Rock NAACP’s annual MLK “Marade,” or March/Parade to the State Capitol, the organization took to the building’s rotunda to honor King and remind people of work still left to be done to repair the damage of systemic racism and injustice in society.
A series of speakers condemned the official state practice of commemorating the Confederate general on the same day as the civil rights leader. Lee has had an official day of recognition in Arkansas since 1947. King has been recognized with an official state holiday since 1983. The Legislature combined both in 1985.
During the NAACP program, Arthur Hunt, pastor at the Hunt Memorial Cathedral in Dumas and president of the College of Aspiring Artists, urged that legislation be passed removing Lee’s name from MLK day.
“Arkansas, our legacy is on the line. How will it look 10 years from now? How will it look 20 years from now? This is the time to get it right,” he said to an applauding crowd.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, whose city board of directors passed a resolution advocating for separation, said he sent letter to all 135 members of the legislature asking for an end of the dual King/Lee day. Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde called the dual holiday “an archaic and insensitive practice.”And attendees also heard from state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb.
“If Robert E. Lee were here to today he would say, ‘separate the holidays. Separate the holidays,” Webb said. “The time is right to do right.”
Members of Webb’s party in the General Assembly will ultimately decide the fate of a bill to end the King/Lee holiday. Little Rock Democratic State Senator Joyce Elliot, the only active legislator in attendance, noted later that a bill will also likely have to come from the GOP.
“The Republicans have huge majorities on both sides. So obviously it makes sense that it should come from the Republicans,” she remarked.
At the podium, Elliot recounted how the last months of her senior year in high school in 1968 were darkened by the assassination of King. Failure to recognize the legacy of the civil rights icon on his own day would be “beneath the dignity of the state,” she said. But she noted the political will must also come from common citizens.
“People think being right about something is enough. I want to remind people that being right is almost never enough. You have to actively get involve to make sure it happens,” she said.
But until any change is made, Arkansas, along with Alabama and Mississippi will continue to commemorate an icon of the Confederacy and an icon of the Civil Rights movement on the same day.