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
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.
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