Nate Bell of Mena is not going to quit in his efforts to dislodge the dual celebration of Robert E. Lee and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., celebrated on the same day each January in Arkansas and only two other states. And for that, we all have to admire his “stick-with-it-ness.”
At first blush when I heard Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, was to be the legislator to sever the holidays I doubted his real enthusiasm to do so. But after last week’s fiasco when a room full of aginners pressured the committee members into a bad decision for our state, there is no doubt to me that Bell is on a crusade. It’s a crusade which all Arkansans should take note.
I can’t think about this issue without remembering that old redneck license plate “Forget Hell!” That old license plate with the image of an ancient Johnny Reb holding the Confederate State’s Stars and Bars somehow comes to mind in this on-going embarrassment. As a kid I saw a lot of these plates in Southeast Arkansas. These license plates were “code” for something else – an inability to be tolerant, be fair and move forward into the 20th Century.
Bell wants to do that and more. He wants to “free” Arkansas from an embarrassing mistake made by the Legislature decades ago. And yes, this is the same Rep. Bell best known for a “bad Tweet moment” during the tragedy at the Boston Marathon a year ago. He has overcome that social media screwup and has kept his Tweets more or less to himself since then.
His brave attempt to rid the state of this dual holiday, which is seen outside Arkansas as a brazen disregard of the events of the past, is well noted. The first person to testify against Bell’s bill was Loy Mauch of Bismarck, a former member of the General Assembly. Mauch is a member organizer of the League of the South, a pro-seccession group against “Southern demographic displacement.” Mauch lost a re-election bid for his extreme views and a general disdain for working with or for any programs in the Legislature.
Bell has continued to work fellow members on and off social media for support for his bill severing this shared holiday. Bell, after all, chairs the committee in which the bill surfaced last week. Kelly Duda, a Little Rock filmmaker and Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU-Arkansas, spoke in favor of splitting the dual holiday into separate observances on different days. Duda said a joint holiday is "bad for business" for the state, and gives a bad impression of Arkansas every time a "closed for MLK Day and Robert E. Lee Day" notice goes up on a state agency's door.”
But then those who wanted to oppose the bill got to speak. Mauch made the case that Lee was a great American who deserved to be honored by the state.
A voice vote by the committee, who were clearly bullied by the crowd, failed to pass the bill. The bill can be brought back before the committee. Also, Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, has a similar bill to Bell’s. It has not made its way to the committee as of yet. It may, in fact, be a better bill.
Perhaps these two legislators of the same mind, together, can help bring this “shared holiday” insanity to an end. I hope they can. A joint-effort together could help put away Arkansas’ past shame of how we treat the memories of these two men.
Those who don’t want to change, well, they can continue to cavort with those who refuse to change. It is time to change the holiday on the Third Monday in January. And it is certainly time to let go of the past.