The joint celebration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. will continue in Arkansas. An effort in the Arkansas Legislature Wednesday to end the state holiday honoring both Lee and King on the same day failed on a voice vote after an onslaught of testimony from those lauding Lee’s legacy. The legislation in the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee would have allowed MLK Day to stand alone, while the Lee celebration would be incorporated into a new “Patrick Cleburne-Robert E. Lee Southern Heritage Day” to be held November 30th.
Former Representative Loy Mauch was the first member of the public to testify. Mauch served in the House from 2011 to 2013 and is a member of the neo-secessionist League of the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it a hate group. Mauch said removing Lee, even if it is to a newly minted Southern Heritage Day, is a path toward rejecting what he considers a heritage worth commemorating.
“I noticed a lot of you are wearing your legislative pins. I’d like to point out that the top start in the Arkansas flag symbolizes Arkansas’s membership in the Confederacy. Are these pins or the Arkansas flag the next to be eliminated? What about the two statues on the Capitol grounds honoring the men and women of the Confederacy?” said Mauch.
Over 25 people signed up to testify against the removal of Lee from the shared state holiday while only two members of the public signed up to speak in favor of the legislation. Most of those who signed up to testify wore lapel pins with Confederate regalia or sported civil war era facial hair. No African-Americans from the public testified.
Darren Waddles, a college Republican at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, too spoke in favor of Lee and King sharing the state holiday bill. Waddles, to the bemusement of those in favor of the bill, argued King and Lee stood for the same principles.
“Goodness gracious, what is the song that they sing all the time. ‘We Will Hold Hand in Hand?’‘We Shall Overcome,’ that’s the song. That is the essence of this day. We’ve progressed so far in this I don’t see why we want to regress.” Waddles continued, “I do find it fitting that these days should remain together.”
Speaking afterward, Representative Fred Love (D-Little Rock) says he can’t reconcile the two men being celebrated together.
“To celebrate Robert E. Lee on the same day that we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, men that fought for very different ideologies regardless of if you feel like Lee is an honorable man. The fact of the matter is they fought for very different things and I’m just very disappointed,” said Love.
The bill voted down in committee, HB1113, is sponsored by Representative Nate Bell (R-Mena). Love said he plans to move forward with a similar bill HB1119. However, Love’s legislation doesn’t include a separate holiday for Lee like the Southern Heritage Day that would have been created by Bell’s bill.
While Representative Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) said he was for Bell’s bill he was also moved by testimony arguing the dual celebration is actually a symbol of racial unity.
“Honestly, if the message that all those people came and testified is true, that celebrating the holiday together is about inclusion, man I’m all over it,” said Ballinger.
All of those supporting the bill, and the separation of Lee from King, made a point to say they respected Lee and found him worthy of recognition. Waddles, opposed to the legislation, posed the premise that changing the holiday at all would be an unwarranted mark against Lee.
“Stripping him of his honor puts into question Southern pride. Should we now be ashamed of our heritage? I would most hopefully think not,” said Waddles.
Love, a Southerner himself, doesn’t see the role of the Confederacy as a part of Southern heritage to be particularly proud of, “when you knowingly celebrate someone who fought for the inhumane, de-humanizing things that slavery stood for there’s just no way that I can celebrate that.”
Rita Sklar of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said she found the display of reverence for the Confederacy an example of a society askew.
“There are white people who are afraid that they are losing something when black people are celebrated or are even just treated as equals, that somehow they are losing ground. It’s that fear I think that propels this segregationist, racism,” said Sklar.
Sklar said she thought much of the rhetoric of equality employed by those in favor of honoring Lee on the same day as King to be disingenuous.
“It’s been a, I would say a clever strategy of the right, of conservatives over the last several years to take up the language of the civil rights movement in moving their agenda,” said Sklar.
There are three states in the nation that celebrate King and Lee on the same day.