In what may turn out to be an historic moment in the 2017 legislative session, the state Senate on Tuesday (Mar. 7) unanimously approved a measure that will move Arkansas closer to joining the 47 other states that celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a standalone holiday.
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. Arkansas, along with Alabama and Mississippi, are the only states that celebrate the two holidays together.
In a brief and heartfelt speech, Wallace told his fellow senators that the time was now for the Legislature to separate the two holidays, especially after several failed attempts in past general sessions.
“I know this is a hard vote for a lot of you,” he said.
In making his case, Wallace said although Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee are celebrated on the same day, very few people in Arkansas honor both historical figures. He further argued that while most black citizens in Arkansas set aside special recognition for the famed civil rights leaders, very few Lee supporters do the same.
“I walk out and I don’t see a lot of parades or celebrations for Robert E. Lee,” he said. “Yet to 16% of our population, our black community, that day is a very, very special day. It is a day spent in prayer, it is a day of remembrance. But it is a day that needs to stand alone – for Martin Luther King.”
GOV. HUTCHINSON SUPPORT
Immediately after Wallace’s brief testimony, the Senate without debate quickly adopted the measure following a tense roll call vote that brought affirmative votes from a strong mix of Democratic and Republican senators. Although 11 Republican senators chose to vote present, there were no “nay” votes for the measure. (Link here for the voting report on the bill.)
Once the votes were tabulated, the East and West galleries looking down on the Senate floor loudly cheered the historic vote as senators voting for the measure embraced each other, shook hands and gave thumbs up to the gallery.
Last week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson gave his strongest endorsement yet to separate the MLK and Lee holidays, saying he would use the power of his office to work with the Legislature to ensure passage of such legislation filed by lawmakers from Northwest Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta. On March 2, in a rare committee appearance, Hutchinson testified in favor of SB519 before the Senate Education Committee. There he displayed an oversized copy of a notice that appeared at the Capitol announcing that state offices would be closed Jan. 16 this year in honor of both the civil rights leader and the Civil War general.
“I suppose you can say we should just celebrate them together, but the fact is celebrating Martin Luther King on the same day as a Confederate general gives Arkansas a sense that you make a choice, and this choice diminishes the contributions of Dr. King,” he said.
BATTLE IN THE HOUSE
Now with Senate approval, SB519 goes to the House, where similar proposals have been rejected in the past. Almost exactly two years ago, the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs voted against House Bill 1113 that would have eliminated the dual status of the two holidays honoring Dr. King and Lee.
That bill, which was rejected twice in committee, was amended to remove a state holiday honoring Confederate president Jefferson Davis to create a holiday honoring Lee and Confederate general Patrick Cleburne on Nov. 30.
Besides honoring King alone, the enabling legislation for SB519 would also require the commissioner of education to emphasize, as part of an already existing unit on African-American history, the work of American civil rights leaders, including King, “and his pursuit of justice in civil society.” The material would be taught alongside corresponding state and federal holidays.
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.” Hutchinson said the bill would not dictate what would be taught, but said he would leave it to state education officials, historians and teachers. Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, is the House sponsor.
VOTER ID LEGISLATION
In other business before the Senate, lawmakers also narrowly approved a resolution for a voter ID amendment that elicited a strong negative response from the largely African-American crowd in the gallery there to support Wallace’s bill.
In a tight vote where the outcome was uncertain until the last vote, House Joint Resolution 1016 by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, was approved by a vote of 24-8, and three non-voting members. The vote was largely along party lines, with Rep. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, casting the deciding vote with the Republican majority to bring the measure to ballot in November 2018. It passed the full House 73-21 nearly a week ago with no debate.
Under HJR 1016, voters would be required to present a photo identification at their polling place or when voting absentee. The Legislature would establish by law the types of photo identification that would qualify. The state would be required to issue photo IDs at no cost to voters who do not have one. Voters without an ID would be able to cast a provisional ballot.
Legislators are allowed to refer three amendments to voters, but rules adopted this year allow each chamber to refer one amendment in November 2018, with a third amendment possible with a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate. Unlike with legislation, the governor does not sign the resolution.
After the vote, Eleanor Coleman, a Little Rock community advocate who came to the State Capitol with her next door neighbor to support SB519, said the long Senate hearing was bittersweet because she said the voter ID initiative will disenfranchise minority and older voters.
“We won one and we lost one today,” she said.
The Senate also rejected SB333 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, which would make it illegal for anyone to combine marijuana with food and drink except qualifying patients and designated caregivers. The measure failed by a vote of 15-11 with nine members not voting. Afterward, Senate members expunged the vote, setting up the possibility it could come back to the floor again.
On the previous day, the Senate soundly rejected SB357 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, a similar bill to the amendment that would have banned the smoking of medical marijuana. That bill, which failed by a vote of 10-15, was also expunged and may come back to the Senate floor before the end of the general session.