The Arkansas House of Representatives voted Friday to give final legislative approval to a bill that ends the official recognition of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day. The House passed SB519 on a 66-11 vote, with five members voting present and 18 not voting.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has championed the legislation since it was first introduced, announced in a statement Friday afternoon that he would sign the bill on Monday.
3/20/17 UPDATE: Hutchinson's office says, due to a scheduling conflict, he now plans to sign the legislation at a ceremony on Tuesday at 12:45pm.
“I want to thank members of the House for their bipartisan support and passage of SB 519,” Hutchinson said. “The support for a separate holiday to recognize Martin Luther King far exceeded my expectations and speaks well of the General Assembly and our state. This bill was one of my priorities, and I was honored to testify for it in both Chambers. I look forward to having a signing ceremony that emphasizes the historic dynamic of this new day.”
Hutchinson also thanked the sponsors of the bill, Sen. David Wallace of Leachville and Rep. Grant Hodges of Rogers, for their leadership. Both Hodges and Wallace are Republicans, as is Hutchinson. Upon the governor’s signature, only Alabama and Mississippi would continue to officially celebrate King and Lee on the same day.
Arkansas has recognized Lee with a state holiday since 1947. It has recognized King since 1983, after the federal holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. In 1985, when former President Bill Clinton was governor, the legislature voted to combine the celebrations of Lee and King.
While presenting the bill on the House floor Friday, Hodges said he hoped the separation of the days would in effect be a chance for unity and education.
“It’s an opportunity to show the citizens of our state and the whole country that we are capable of coming together, not out of political correctness or any other silly reason, but out of respect and out of mutual understanding,” Hodges said.
The bill makes the third Monday in January a standalone state and federal holiday in observance of Dr. King. It gives the governor the authority to proclaim the second Saturday in October a state memorial day in observance of Lee. The bill also includes provisions calling for special school curriculum to be developed by the state on the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.
An impassioned debate preceded the vote. Republican Rep. Jana Della Rosa, also of Rogers, spoke against the bill. She said when similar legislation was proposed in the House and failed two years ago, she did not care much about the issue. By this legislative session, however, she had changed her attitude.
“We are taking Robert E. Lee and we are putting him in the basement and we are acting embarrassed that he ever existed,” Della Rosa said. “It’s no different than if we went out and we took that statue of the Confederate Soldiers and put it down in the basement and said nobody’s going to look at it again.”
“We are embarrassed of our heritage,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, spoke in favor of the bill. She said King’s legacy was known and respected far beyond the American South.
“Dr. King not only impacted people then and generations to come throughout our great nation, but also impacted people across the world,” Flowers said.
By separating the days, Flowers said, Arkansans would join the rest of the country in honoring King.
“It puts Arkansas on par with 47 other states that observe the holiday in accordance with the federal law that was passed and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2nd, 1983.”
Speaking for the bill, Democratic Rep. George McGill of Fort Smith talked about his great-great grandfather, who he said was also named George. McGill said his ancestor fought in the Civil War. After the conflict he traveled from Mississippi and settled in Arkansas. McGill, who is black, said he knew very little about that story.
“I wonder what he went through. I don’t know,” he said.
McGill went on to say that separating the days for King and Lee would allow the youth of Arkansas to uncover the truth about their heritage.
“Let’s do something for our children," McGill said. "Let’s do something for the state of Arkansas by creating some space where they can take time to talk about Robert E. Lee and what he did that day when he painfully surrendered and reached his hand across and said enough is enough. Let’s do that for our children. We shouldn’t confuse them.”
This post was edited on 3/18/17.