A Legislative Look At Arkansas MLK/Lee Day: Talking With Reps. Ballinger and Love

Jan 18, 2016

Part of a public notice printed by the Arkansas Secretary of State's office observing Martin Luther King and Robert E. lee Day.

The almost uniquely Arkansas tradition of splitting the Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday bill with Robert E. Lee is in full swing today. The state governments of Mississippi and Alabama are the other holdouts of the dual observance of the civil rights leader and Confederate general. Lee’s home state of Virginia ended its Lee-Jackson-King Day in 2000.

If Governor Asa Hutchinson has his wish this could be among the last times Arkansas will have the pairing of Lee and King. Earlier this month he told reporters they should in some form be separated in the 2017 regular legislative session. However, the governor’s backing of an effort in 2015 didn’t amount to much with multiple efforts failing in the House Stage Agencies Committee. See here and here.

Rep. Fred Love, a Little Rock Democrat, helped lead the charge against Lee in State Agencies (along with then-Republican Nate Bell of Mena) last year and he plans to try again next year.  I talked with Rep. Love and Rep. Bob Ballinger late last week about MLK/Lee Day. Ballinger is a Republican from Hindsville who tried to broker a compromise to move Lee’s observance to a new holiday with Arkansas Confederate General Patrick Cleburne but generally thinks the legislature’s time is best spent elsewhere.

A few takeaways from speaking with Representatives Love and Ballinger:

Priorities:

Love:

“Could there be more pressing issues? Possibly. But it’s a very important issue. We’re talking about healing the community and moving forward on race relations. You can never dismiss those types of issues.”

Ballinger:

“Even though it makes it rather clumsy and it creates some headaches for some people I think it’s not the kind of issue that’s really worth fighting about it.”

“If this is going to be something that people are so passionate about. Give it a little bit of time. The holidays may separate naturally on their own or maybe there would be one holiday celebrated and another one wouldn’t. But maybe we could be focusing on things like moving Arkansans out of poverty and have more economic freedom.”

The political price:

Ballinger:

“Last time I tried to work toward getting some sort of settlement, compromise that everybody could agree with and hoped that it would happen but it didn’t happen. Instead it really took up a lot of time in the State Agencies Committee and spent a lot of energy that could have been focused on putting together better constitutional amendments or a variety of other things.”

“There’s no doubt it actually really did affect the committee. I don’t think the committee ever really was able to get over it.”

Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) in 2015.
Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / KUAR News

“It may be legitimately really offensive to some people and hurtful and I don’t like people to be uncomfortable or feel frustrated or whatever but at the same time it frankly is just not worth that kind of heat to try to fix it.”

Love:

He said it’s been an uphill battle in Arkansas but pointed to decisions in South Carolina, New Orleans, and elsewhere to stop celebrating Confederate heritage in some holidays, monuments, and flags.

“It should be a sign of the times that we need to move forward to heal.”

On whether venerating Lee is acceptable, on some other date from King:

Both Ballinger and Love are open to compromises that move Lee’s observance elsewhere on the state holiday calendar but diverge on whether Lee is worth honoring. Both are in support of keeping MLK Day.

Love:

“The Confederacy should not be heralded or celebrated.”

Rep. Fred Love speaking in committee during the 2015 debate.

“What Robert E Lee fought for, the Confederacy, it needs to be history plain and simple. We should not celebrate the idea of slavery, or anything that connected to it like the Confederacy. It’s a bad part of their heritage. It’s a part of the South that just needs to go away. We need to not celebrate that part of history.”

Ballinger:

“I think Rep. Love is a kind and intelligent guy but I think if he were able to look at Robert E. Lee and do it openly I think he could respect Robert E. Lee was a guy who didn’t support slavery and didn’t own slaves.”

“Lee was a guy who was dedicated to his home state of Virginia.”

Learning about the other side:

Love:

“There’s a lot of people that feel strongly either way. It shows that we need to have a deeper conversation. It’s a symbolic gesture of moving our state forward. But  there needs to be a larger conversation in which there’s a healing. This is just one step in a healing process. I believe that if we can begin with this small step it would lead to a larger conversation that we need to have regarding race relations.”

Ballinger:

“I don’t believe that King would want the hassle, the attention that is associated with it. And I don’t think that Lee would want the attention associated with it. I think it would make sense that we separate it into two different holidays. However, the public didn’t want that obviously. Or at least most of the energy behind it was to stop it and it was very bi-partisan.”

“Did it shift my understanding in it? Maybe not. But it really surprised me that it was such a big deal to so many people but it shows a little bit of how we are so myopic, where we just sort of focus on ourselves and superimpose our views on the rest of the world.”