The House Education Committee voted Tuesday (March 14) to separate the state’s holiday that now honors civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee. The bill, which has been approved in the Senate, now heads to the House.
Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, would make the third Monday in January an official state holiday honoring only King. The second Saturday in October would be Robert E. Lee Day, not a holiday but one of Arkansas’ “state memorial days to be commemorated by gubernatorial proclamation,” the bill says.
The bill passed on a voice vote where the “ayes” clearly outnumbered the “nos,” but no roll call was requested.
The late afternoon discussion began with a rare appearance before the committee by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who also appeared before the Senate Education Committee when it passed the measure March 2. Hutchinson told the committee that his great-great-grandfather, Col. Alexander Simpson Hutchinson of Nashville, Ark., fought for the Confederacy. He related that two years ago, a similar bill was filed that did not pass.
“I stayed in my office upstairs quietly for the bill that gave Dr. King a holiday, but I had other priorities in that session, and I did not lift a finger to help that, and I said if it comes up again, that I believe it is important enough for me to be here to support it and to ask for your support for it as well,” he said.
Hutchinson and Hodges displayed a Google screenshot showing the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, an African-American history museum in Little Rock, was closed for Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Hodges later said Google apologized for the posting.
Asked by Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, if the average person cared about the holiday or if this was just an example of political correctness, Hutchinson recalled the state of South Carolina’s reaction after the massacre at a Charleston church in 2015 and said separating the holiday was a way to encourage healing. He said Arkansas is one of only three states that separate the holidays on the same day, the others being Alabama and Mississippi, and that it impacts the state’s ability to recruit top talent.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, one of the no votes, told the governor she viewed the bill as divisive. She has filed a bill that would honor King and Little Rock civil rights pioneer Daisy Gatson Bates on the third Monday in January and would pair George Washington and Lee on the third Monday in February.
“The messages I’ve been getting, not one person has asked me to do this, and I have gotten tons of emails asking me not to do this,” she said.
The bill also requires the commissioner of education to emphasize, as part of already existing material on African-American history, the work of American civil rights leaders including King. The material would be taught alongside corresponding state and federal holidays and at other times. It also requires the Department of Education to develop materials relating to Arkansas and the Civil War. The material would emphasize “civilian and military leadership during the period and how the lessons of that era can inform contemporary society.”
Several members of the audience spoke against the bill, including Robert Edwards, the commander of the state division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who said his group had recommended to the governor that the days be separated over a four-day weekend with one day for Lee and another for King and employees given a chance to choose. He argued that in the same way that segregated schools were separate but not equal, so also would be a holiday for King but only a memorial day for King. Robert Freeman said he opposes the bill because it was “socialist political correctness.”
Rizelle Aaron, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, said the pairing of the two historical figures on the same holiday is painful for African-Americans, and that he did not want to have to explain to his grandchildren why the two were celebrated together.
“When we think about Robert E. Lee and Dr. King on the same day, it reminds us of the things that were suffered by slaves at the hands of people that wanted to keep them as slaves,” he said.
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, testified that he had been raised in an all-white school and did not have relationships with African-Americans until he joined the military. He said when the bill was discussed in the Senate Education Committee, he had seen the hurt looks on some of his fellow senators’ faces. After watching the movie “Hidden Figures” about African-American mathematicians at NASA, he had spoken to one of those senators, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, about her experiences.
“The fact that these holidays are joined may not be offensive to you,” he said. “The fact is, you should know that it is offensive to many of your colleagues and friends, and I think we have a duty and we have an obligation to put them first.”