LITTLE ROCK — A bill to remove commemoration of Robert E. Lee from Arkansas’ dual holiday celebrating Lee and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cleared a House panel Tuesday after Gov. Asa Hutchinson made a rare committee appearance to urge support for it.
In a voice vote with several dissenting votes audible, the House Education Committee gave a “do pass” recommendation to Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville. The bill, which passed 24-0 in the Senate last week, now needs passage by the full House to go to the governor’s desk.
The measure would designate the second Saturday in October, the month of Lee’s death, as Robert E. Lee Day, a memorial day to be celebrated by gubernatorial proclamation and not a state holiday. The third Monday in January would remain a state holiday but would honor King only.
The bill also would require that Arkansas public schools provide instruction on American civil rights leaders, including instruction on King that would be timed to correspond with the state and federal King holidays.
Schools also would be required to provide instruction on Arkansas and the Civil War with an emphasis on “civilian and military leadership during the period and how the lessons of that era can inform contemporary society.”
Hutchinson told the committee that he did nothing to help a 2015 effort to strip Lee from the holiday because he had other priorities in that session, but after that effort failed he decided he would take an active role in pushing for the idea in the next session.
“I think this does help unify our state. I think it recognizes the contributions and extraordinary time in Arkansas history of Dr. King,” he said.
The governor said Lee’s role in history would be observed under the bill, but he said Arkansas would have a separate, stand-alone holiday for King, “recognizing an individual that changed America for the good.”
Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, questioned whether the issue was important to most Arkansans and asked if there was any reason to remove Lee from the holiday other than “trying to be politically correct.”
“I haven’t talked to a minority group yet that it’s not important (to),” Hutchinson said. “To me, that makes it important for all of us.”
Arkansas has observed Robert E. Lee Day since 1947 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day since 1983. The holidays were combined in 1985 by an act of the Legislature that was signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Two other states, Alabama and Mississippi, honor both men on the same day.
Among those who testified against the bill were Robert Freeman of Hot Springs, who suggested creating a holiday for Lee on President’s Day, and Robert Edwards of Benton, who suggested creating a holiday for Lee on the Friday before the King Holiday and letting people decide which to celebrate.
Edwards said that what the bill proposes “is not a division of holidays, it is the elimination of Robert E. Lee. And separate is not equal.”
Rizelle Aaron, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, said the bill is not about being politically correct.
“People, especially in the African-American community, are still hurting every time this holiday comes about, every time we see this holiday, every time we hear about it,” he said.
Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, who is carrying the bill in the House, said all of the alternative ideas suggested in testimony have been considered, but there is no consensus on a single solution.
“I’ll submit to you that there is no perfect solution to that, but I think the solution that we’ve come up with in this bill works,” he said.