MLK/Lee Day: It'll Take A White Republican To Separate The Two

Jan 14, 2017

State Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock) testifying to end the joint observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee. (2015 file photo).
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR News

Heading into Arkansas's concurrent observances of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Robert E. Lee Day some lawmakers were predicting this could be the last year for the joint state holiday. But despite the backing of the state's Republican governor, no one has stepped forward to carry the legislation.

In 2015, State Rep. Charles Blake, an African-American and Democrat from Little Rock, helped lead the first of several charges against recognizing the Confederate general on the same day as the Civil Rights leader. Blake, along with then-Republican Rep. Nate Bell of Mena (who is white) were unable to advance the bill out of committee rooms stacked with Confederate defenders and white, Southern nationalists in the League of the South.

The Arkansas General Assembly convened on Monday and Blake says he's still waiting for someone else to emerge to champion the legislation. He can't be the lone change agent in the legislature, he told KUAR. It'll make a difference if a white Republican steps up to the plate.

"Yes it does, yes it does," Blake said when asked if the race of the bill's sponsor will make a difference in how it plays among the chamber's players. 

The second-term House member said racial division is a factor but so are partisan lines.

"We are of the super minority so we would be surprised if we get things passed anyway. It is a Democrat and Republican thing, but also having someone that's black going to present and say, 'I respect Martin Luther King, it's a national holiday. It should be a state holiday,' doesn't hold as much weight as having a white person say it. I hate to say that, but it's true," said Blake.

He continued, "It's just racial tensions are incredibly high within our state and we have to be honest about it."

There were multiple incarnations and compromise pieces of legislation put forward in 2015 to separate the MLK/Lee Holiday. Blake says he's still open to the compromise idea of separating the holidays but reserving a separate day for Lee elsewhere on the state calendar. Although it's not his preference.

"I'm not sure if everyone would be as receptive of setting up a separate date," said Blake, referring specifically to his party's black caucus. "I think what needs to happen if there needs to be a separate day, if you want to move Lee, then bring it the floor separately and let's vote. I'm not saying I'm fine with it, but just vote it. I'm not really sure there should be a day for Robert E. Lee separately."

A historical reminder, a great many white Republicans helped defeat Lee's secessionist forces over 150 years ago. It remains to be seen if a white Republican will do so again.

Multiple state representatives who opposed separating the holiday last year did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication. KUAR will catch up with them next week at the Capitol.