I admit to being surprised today to see that the House State Agencies Committee failed to pass out HB1113 sponsored by the committee’s chairman Rep. Nate Bell. This would have separated the official celebration of Robert E. Lee from the day set aside to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on the third Monday each January. It would have also created a separate day on November 30 that acknowledge both Lee and Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne from Helena.
A line of Neo-Confederates showed up at the committee hearing to speak against the bill, including former Rep. Loy Mauch from Bismark who was first to speak. You may recall that Mauch lost his re-election bid in 2012 largely due to racially-charged statements he made primarily in defense of the Confederacy. Republicans re-took the district in 2014 to further solidify that Mauch’s defeat was largely due to voters who disapproved of his Confederate defense and not his party affiliation.
In 2012, Republicans distanced themselves from Mauch, including then Congressman now Lt. Governor Tim Griffin who told the AP, “I read a sample of Rep. Mauch’s statements, and they range from outrageous to historically inaccurate and anachronistic to downright odd. As we all know, both parties have folks that say ridiculous things, but I would not have financially supported Mauch had I known about these statements.”
But today for whatever reason, the House Committee chose to listen to Mauch’s arguments and failed to pass the bill on a voice vote. That means we really don’t know who voted for or against the bill although the committee membership is 13 Republicans to 7 Democrats, so I will let you do the math. This is in spite of encouragement for separating the two days from both Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Republican Secretary of State Mark Martin who is embarrassed to have to post the notices with both men listed each year.
The best I could gather from the discussion is that the subject is simply uncomfortable and it is better not to address the issue and instead let things stay as they currently are.
This is an unfortunate conclusion and one that I hope the committee will reconsider.
To some, Robert E. Lee is a hero. To others, he is villain. And to others – including myself – he was a man who like all men had both good and bad qualities. Regardless of opinion, this is a fact: he was the Confederate General of the Army of Northern Virginia and was one of the key military leaders of the armed rebellion against the United States during the Civil War, which was fought over many issues, primarily the issue of slavery.
Even if you admire Lee, it is not difficult to understand then why many would find it insensitive to honor the Confederate General – however noble he may have been – on the same day we as a state and nation honor the civil rights achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I understand firsthand the long history of those who grew up in the South. I am a first generation Arkansan, but my family roots go far back in Georgia. My great-great-great grandfather was Levi Oliver Tolbert. I know little of him other than when he was born and died, who he married, who his children were, and that he is buried in Academy Baptist Church Cemetery in Jefferson, Georgia. I also know from a monument erected by the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp from Athens that he fought for the Confederacy as part of Cobbs Legion. That is part of my family history.
I know a bit more about the history of Levi’s grandson – my great-grandfather, William Marcus Tolbert – from the stories told by my dad and granddad. He lived most of his life as a farmer in Maysville, Georgia. He served for a brief time as the county sheriff, which was fairly common at that time for farmers to take a turn doing so as a matter of public service.
One item of his that my family treasures is a threatening letter that the Klu Klux Klan sent to him for daring to hire blacks to work on his farm and paying them the same wage as his white workers. He saved the letter and it was passed down to his son and then to my dad. If it is ever handed down to me, it is going to be framed and will hang on the wall of my office.
It would have been easy for my great-granddad – a respected community leader and farmer in the old South – to have gone along to get along and either reduced the pay of his black workers or not hired them at all. But he did not do the easy thing, the comfortable thing. A hundred years later his great-grandson, whom he never met, remembers it and is proud of him.
Sometimes dealing with a matter that is uncomfortable is worth it. Rep. Fred Love of Little Rock has a similar bill – HB1119 – that is still before the House Committee. The members have a chance to vote again if Rep. Love decides to run his bill. I hope he does. This second time I hope they will have the courage to do the right thing. History has a way of remembering the brave and quickly forgetting the cowards.