Arkansans will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday alone next January and remember General Robert E. Lee in October after House members passed a bill giving King his own day Friday.
Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, will make the third Monday in January an official state holiday honoring only King. The second Saturday in October will be Robert E. Lee Day, not a holiday but a state memorial day.
Arkansas is one of three states that celebrated the two men on the same day this year, the others being Alabama and Mississippi. The state began celebrating Lee’s birthday in 1947 and then began celebrating the two men jointly in 1985 after King’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983.
The vote was 66-11, with 5 voting present.
The bill was strongly supported by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who for the first time in his administration testified in favor of a bill in a committee meeting.
“I want to thank members of the House for their bipartisan support and passage of SB 519, and I especially want to thank Sen. Wallace and Rep. Hodges for their leadership on this landmark bill,” Hutchinson said in a statement shortly after passage. “The support for a separate holiday to recognize Martin Luther King far exceeded my expectations and speaks well of the General Assembly and our state. This bill was one of my priorities, and I was honored to testify for it in both chambers. I look forward to having a signing ceremony that emphasizes the historic dynamic of this new day.”
The ceremony will be 12:45 p.m., Monday, in the Governor’s Conference Room, spokesman J.R. Davis said.
Hodges, the great-great-grandson of a Confederate veteran, said the bill was not meant to disrespect either man, but they do not belong on the same day.
“The fact is that these two men, while they were both great Americans and led great movements in their own way, they were from different time periods in our country, and they represent different things to different people,” he said.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, spoke against the bill, saying she was angry that Lee was given only a day of remembrance on the same date that was “Crosswalk Safety Day” in 2016. She said the change was being made for political correctness.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of backlash if we do this because I think it conveys a sense of embarrassment of our heritage,” she said.
Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, said the next step was to remove the star on the flag commemorating the state’s membership in the Confederacy.
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, spoke for the bill, paying tribute to King by saying “Dr. Martin Luther King is an American hero, servant leader and a Christian whose ideals and philosophies, his great works changed the world.” Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, also spoke in favor of the bill.
Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, spoke last. Beginning by greeting his fellow House members with a smile, he said that his great-great-grandfather, George McGill, also fought in the Civil War.
“I often thought about what happened when they said the war was over. … I often wonder what he took with him,” he said. “Did anyone give hims ration to eat? I wonder if they took the weapon that he fought with.”
He said the votes of legislators would be recorded in big binders and then stored and largely forgotten. What the legislators were doing, he said, was giving educators a space to teach about the past.
“What we will have done is created a framework of education so our children will know the truth about who we are,” he said. “They’ll know the pain and suffering of war. They’ll know the pain and suffering of being mistreated and told like I was told when I first went to the University of Arkansas, ‘You cannot live in this dormitory because of the color of your skin.’”
McGill said he wore an afro hairstyle at the university and would give the black power sign, and when he graduated he said he would never return because of the way he was treated.
“We got rid of that luggage. One of my favorite places to go,” he said.
In other business, the House passed House Bill 1400 by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, which would ban marijuana smoking in the same places where tobacco smoking is banned, in the presence of children up to 14 years of age, inside motor vehicles, and in places where smoking marijuana could influence another person. Smoking marijuana for medical use would be illegal for anyone under 21. The vote was 88-0.
House members also passed House Bill 1621 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, which allows school board elections to be held during either November elections or during the May primary (or at the same time of year in off-election years). The vote was 59-19 with 6 voting present. School board elections now are held in September, which Lowery said results in low voter turnout. Lowery said low turnouts for school board elections result in less buy-in from voters.
Some legislators questioned the bill’s workability and how it would affect elections. Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, said it would have required more than 700 different ballots to be created in Benton County because school district lines do not match political subdivisions. Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said it would make school elections more partisan.
Meanwhile, the House voted against House Bill 1725 by Douglas, which would transfer the State Plant Board, Arkansas Forestry Commission, the state Livestock and Poultry Commission, and four lesser agencies to the Agriculture Department. The transfer would be accomplished through a “Type 4” transfer, where records, personnel, property, unspent appropriations, allocations and other funds, including the functions of budgeting and purchasing, would be transferred to the principal department. The bill failed 30-31 with 13 voting present.