Arkansans will honor Dr. Martin Luther King – and only King – the third Monday of January next year after Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill into law Tuesday (March 21).
Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, reserves that day for King after Arkansas since 1985 has also honored Gen. Robert E. Lee on that same day.
Robert E. Lee Day will be the second Saturday in October – a state memorial day, not a holiday, coinciding with the time of his death. Schools are required to teach about the civil rights struggle and the Civil War in conjunction with those days.
The House of Representatives approved the bill Friday by a vote of 66-11, with 5 voting present and the rest not voting. The Senate had already approved the bill.
“To be quite honest, I expected this debate would divide us, but instead, during the debate we listened to each other, and the conversation brought us together,” Hutchinson said.
Arkansas this year was one of three states that honored the two men on the same day, the others being Alabama and Mississippi. The dual holiday came about after Arkansas in 1947 made a state holiday out of Lee’s birthday Jan. 19. King’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983, which meant there would be two state holidays at about the same time each year. Lawmakers did not want state employees to have another paid vacation day, so in 1985, Gov. Bill Clinton signed a bill combining the holidays.
An effort in 2015 to separate the holiday failed under the weight of opposition and the inertia of the status quo. Hutchinson quietly supported that bill but did not act to pass it. Afterwards, he said he began engaging in discussions with legislators about the issue. This year, he testified in favor of the bill before the House and Senate Education Committees, the first time he has done so as governor.
“I’m not governor to simply preside at peace for four years,” he said. “I want to solve problems. I want to address issues, and this is something that I thought was important for our state. So I made that commitment, and once you do, you’re out there.”
Hutchinson thanked the Legislative Black Caucus and the bill’s sponsors, Wallace and Hodges, of whom he said, “Whenever I asked them to sponsor the legislation, they thought they were the loneliest people in the house.” He also thanked Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who testified before the House Education Committee prior to what was expected to be a close vote.
He singled out Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, whose heartfelt speech on the House floor shortly before the vote Friday was praised by many. McGill talked about his great-great-grandfather, also named George McGill, who had fought in the war on the Union side, and he wondered what it had been like for him when the war ended. He talked about his own experiences at the University of Arkansas when he was denied a dormitory room because of his race. He told the members that the bill would be just one more piece of paper stuck in a big binder. What mattered more, he said, was legislators were giving educators space to teach about the past.
Hutchinson said one legislator had told him in his office that he could not support the bill because of opposition from his constituents. On Tuesday morning, the legislator emailed him saying he had voted for the bill “after much thought, prayer, soul-searching, and I must add, hearing the wonderful speech delivered by my dear friend, George McGill.”
McGill said he had not prepared the speech and spoke off the cuff.
“I sensed the tension in the room. It was not healthy, and I was just led to say something,” he told reporters.
Asked about the reaction to his speech, he said, “I am surprised. It’s very humbling all the wonderful comments and statements that have been made about it. In fact, I had to go look at it myself. Wasn’t too sure what I said.”
Opponents in the debate had questioned if the next step would be to remove Confederate monuments or the star on the state flag commemorating the state’s membership in the Confederacy.
“I think we’re fine,” Hutchinson said. “I suppose there will always be debate and discussion, but my objective is not to change history, to erase history, or to remove every remembrance of what our country has gone through, but it’s to use that history to reflect and to understand all the different viewpoints that were represented during that difficult time in our history.”
Asked about the bill’s place in the larger national discussion about race in the wake of the 2015 massacre at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the death of Freddie Gray during an arrest in Baltimore, Hutchinson replied, “That if it’s possible to heal wounds and bring people together before a tragedy, then that’s the right time to do it.”
In response to a request from activist Annie Abrams, Hutchinson said he would send a copy to the families of Little Rock civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates and to Dr. King’s family.
Hutchinson pointed out that the 13 bills he had identified as priorities all had passed.