Ending Arkansas' dual birthday celebrations for Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. will be an "uphill battle," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday, but one he is willing to engage in heading into the final month of the legislative session.
Along with Alabama and Mississippi, Arkansas is among the last of the Southern states to attach the Confederate general's name to the national holiday that celebrates the civil rights icon. Recent attempts to change that have met with fierce backlash.
Before the start of the session in early January, Hutchinson declared that ending the holiday would be among his legislative priorities. But the holiday, which fell on Jan. 16 this year, came and went with no bill being filed to change it.
On Tuesday, legislation was filed in the Senate to remove Lee's name from the holiday, and honor him with a separate state memorial day in October, the month the general died in 1870. The sponsors of the legislation are Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers.
Hutchinson held a news conference Wednesday to announce his support for Senate Bill 519.
The governor described how visitors to the state Capitol on the January holiday are greeted with signs explaining the office's closure in honor of both men. Hutchinson said the dual holiday has created an image problem for the state.
"You can take one or other," Hutchinson said. "I believe that is a wrong choice, it is a bad choice and sends the wrong signal to Arkansans and to our young people."
The governor thanked Hodges and Wallace for agreeing to attach their names to the proposal.
"Some said they would not, because it's a controversial piece," Hutchinson said.
Two years ago, separate bills were filed in the House to give Lee a different memorial day. Both failed after raucous committee hearings. The sponsor of one of those bills, former Rep. Nate Bell, an independent from Mena, said earlier this year that he received threatening messages from opponents.
Bell is no longer in the Legislature. The other previous sponsor, Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, said at the start of this legislative session that his support had waned for any proposal to give Lee his own day.
At Wednesday's news conference, Hutchinson said he had gathered input from the Legislative Black Caucus while working on the bill. The chairman of the caucus, Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, said "there was no general opposition" from the members but that further tweaks would be sought.
"We're just trying to get it nailed down," she said.
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans will travel to Little Rock to oppose any legislation removing Lee's name from the holiday, said Arkansas division commander Robert Allan Edwards of Benton. He added that he had no intention of celebrating Lee's holiday on the second Saturday in October.
"That's the day he died," Edwards said.
A Section on 03/02/2017
Print Headline: Bill seeks to split Lee/King day; Holiday for both sends ‘wrong signal,’ Hutchinson says