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story.lead_photo.caption Surrounded by legislators, Gov. Asa Hutchinson lays down his pen Tuesday after signing the bill to separate the holidays recognizing civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. With Hutchinson are (clockwise from left): Reps. Reginald Murdock, Fred Allen and Grant Hodges; Arkansas NAACP President Rizelle Aaron; and Reps. George McGill and Vivian Flowers. - Photo by Stephen B. Thornton

Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill into law Tuesday to split Arkansas' dual celebration of the birthdays of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Previous attempts to separate the holidays failed, but the governor made Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, a key part of his legislative agenda, advocating for it in committee meetings. He has done that for no other bill this session.

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Photos by Brandon Riddle

The law will leave the celebration of King's birthday on the third Monday in January. It is a holiday for state employees and a federal holiday.

It will move the Lee celebration to the second Saturday in October -- near the day of his death. Lee's day will be commemorated by gubernatorial proclamation and will not be a holiday for state employees.

The law requires that students be taught about both Lee and King.

Hutchinson said the debate over the bill has already served as a learning experience for lawmakers.

"To be quite honest, I expected this debate would divide us, but instead, during the debate, we listened to each other and the conversation brought us together," Hutchinson said. "This is an education bill in which the discussion educated each of us, and we learned that history needs to be viewed not just from our own lens but from the eyes and experiences of others."

The governor highlighted several turning points in the bill's debate that moved the measure forward.

One was a speech by Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, on the House floor.

Hutchinson said he called a lawmaker, whom he did not name, to his office to rally support for the bill. The lawmaker said no to the governor.

But on Friday, McGill stood up and spoke for 12 minutes about how his great-great-grandfather came from Mississippi to fight for the Union and how angry he was when he was barred from living in University of Arkansas, Fayetteville dormitories because he is black.

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He said he didn't know much about his ancestor's struggle and didn't carry it with him. He said he once vowed never to set foot on the UA campus again, but that now it's one of his favorite places to visit.

And he praised Rogers Republican Reps. Jana Della Rosa, who spoke against SB519, and Grant Hodges, the House sponsor of the bill.

"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."

Hutchinson said McGill's speech helped persuade at least one lawmaker to change his vote, when Hutchinson's arguments failed to do so.

Another turning point came when Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, told lawmakers during a contentious committee meeting to consider their black colleagues.

"The fact is, that these holidays are joined may not be offensive to you. The fact is, you should know that it is offensive to many of your colleagues and your friends, and I think we have a duty and an obligation to put them first," Hendren said.

Hutchinson also credited the Legislative Black Caucus and Rizelle Aaron, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, for helping to advance the measure.

In a House Education Committee meeting, Aaron had said he visited with King's daughter, Bernice King, and they discussed the joint celebration of King and Lee in Arkansas.

"Imagine how she felt," Aaron said.

On Tuesday, Annie Abrams, a Little Rock civil-rights activist, asked that signed copies of the law be provided to King's family and to the Daisy Bates House in Little Rock. Bates was an Arkansas civil-rights leader and mentored the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

"Wow," the governor said. "I would be very honored."

SB519 was controversial because some people said it did not respect Lee's contributions to history.

"I'm mad," Della Rosa said on the House floor during debate last week. "We are taking Robert E. Lee, and we are putting him in the basement and acting like we are embarrassed he ever existed."

Likewise, Robert Edwards, the commander of the Arkansas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said cultural diversity should not be a one-way street.

"It has to work both directions. Otherwise you get a European roundabout -- you just chase your tail, you're running in circles the whole time," he said. "It takes action and reaction from all involved in order to have cultural sensitivity and diversity."

Changing the holiday would lead to the state having to make other revisions, including to the state flag, suggested Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro. The blue star located above the state's name on the flag commemorates its place in the Confederacy.

Asked Tuesday about the possibility of additional revisions, Hutchinson said he was satisfied with the holiday split.

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said after the bill's signing that lawmakers came together and learned from their debate.

"This had to be something that wasn't just our agenda and didn't represent something that black people owned only. Dr. King and his legacy belongs to everyone, and I think that's what this bill does," she said. "The governor recognized it. Sen. Wallace recognized it, and Rep. Hodges as well."

Two other former Confederate states, Alabama and Mississippi, continue to celebrate a joint King-Lee holiday. Arkansas' joint holiday was approved in 1985.

Some in the Legislature had attempted to separate the joint holiday in 2015, when two House members, a Republican and a Democrat, filed separate bills proposing that Lee be celebrated with a separate day of remembrance.

Despite receiving an endorsement from Hutchinson, both of those bills failed in committee.

A Section on 03/22/2017

Print Headline: Hutchinson signs King/Lee holiday split

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  • RBear
    March 22, 2017 at 5:18 a.m.

    Thanks to Gov. Hutchinson and several committed legislators who moved this important legislation forward. Arkansas continues to send a message of equality and diversity that make our nation great. Shame on those legislators who voted against this legislation. You continue to attempt to hold Arkansas back from greatness.

  • bthayesesq
    March 22, 2017 at 7:49 a.m.

    Shame on Gov. Hutchinson and all the turncoat RINO legislators who voted for this bill. Thanks for betraying your party and your people -- I would say "principles" too but that apparently doesn't factor in (or else you're just so far gone from drinking cultural liberalism's PC kool-aid that you don't even know what you're supposed to stand for anymore). Here's a hint -- look around you -- the friends of your enemies should be your enemies, too. If all the Social Marxists are for something, then perhaps you should be against it. The Democrats (and media) are all very, very proud of you today. The people who actually voted for you and gave their hard-earned money to your campaigns (can I have mine back now, please?) feel confused and betrayed. We are so sick of our supposedly conservative elected officials selling us out; congratulations, GOP leaders -- you've done it to yourselves again -- this is exactly how you gave us Pres. Trump.

  • NoUserName
    March 22, 2017 at 8:32 a.m.

    Lee's home state of VA doesn't honor the guy. I have yet to hear a single reason why the state of Arkansas should.

  • RBear
    March 22, 2017 at 9:28 a.m.

    Bthayesesq, in all your rhetorical rambling I have yet to find a reasonable position to support keeping the practice of honoring Lee on the same day as King. In fact, people like you are what's holding this state back on many fronts. How about you and some of your redneck racists shut up and color while the rest of us work at making our state a more open and diverse environment for economic development.

  • wildblueyonder
    March 22, 2017 at 9:32 a.m.

    All you liberal/progressives reveal is your intolerance with those who disagree with you and your hypocrisy on all subjects.

  • mrcharles
    March 22, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.

    Rogers Republican Reps. Jana Della Rosa, Robert Edwards, the commander of the Arkansas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and " Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, I feel your deep pain. Many germans who fathers and grandfathers who fought for the SS against Bolshevism regret that the world does not credit their ancestors for their sacrifice in trying to protect christian europe against g-dless Bolshevism. So Jana Della Rosa, Robert Edwards,& Brandt Smith I want you to know in spite of our differences we can understand your thinking. Ok, lets move on, as Gma Gertrude use to say, Get over it!

    I believe all are missing the point that actually this action is saving the Lee holiday. Just think about it. Mr., Lee is getting his holiday [ and you know how this pisses off the war on Christmas people to use the holy day word holiday] in the same month as Halloween, where school board members can dress up in black face and be PC.

    Perhaps Lee should have listened to Gen Longstreet a little closer.

    gohog, you forget your scripture that foretold this event.

    and bthayesesq, I agree you and your kind have been betrayed again, just like Jesus. I do salute you for the statement this is how you gave us Pres Trump..... stayed tuned though there may be important events happening in the near future.

    And hophog, I forgot to mention that G-d was on the side of the confederacy... explain that in rational terms knowing the result. You cannot use the excuse like old time jews did, that G-d punished them for their sins, as they followed the ancient book's injunction to have slaves.

    The Night They Drove ole Dixie Down is one of my favorite songs. It is a ring tone on my phone.

  • HarleyOwner
    March 22, 2017 at 11:08 a.m.

    They should have moved King to that Saturday. Most of the people that honor him don't work anyway. The Governor and the Legislators are cowards and traitors .

  • RBear
    March 22, 2017 at 11:28 a.m.

    HarleyOwner, and the ignorance of rednecks like yourself just keeps piling up. I, for one, am one of those who honor King and also employed. You and many others like you are why this action needed to be taken. The racist overtones by you and others have held this state back for decades from greatness. It's also why we need to take the next step and stop honoring an individual who led a rebellion against the Union for the sole purpose of protecting a state's right to allow men to own humans in servitude.

  • YoungHog
    March 22, 2017 at 12:39 p.m.

    RBear and NoUserName said it best.. I lol at all others.. GO HOGS

  • 3WorldState1
    March 22, 2017 at 12:59 p.m.

    Not saying that Dems and Ind's don't work, but every single person I know that is on the state or federal tit, or/and don't work, i.e. losers, are hard gore Republicans. And you would think I would know some since I am a liberal and hang around so many. But nope, just stupid, redneck GOP losers.
    I guarantee the losers on this board, half are these losers. They just have zero self awareness.