LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday signed into a law a bill ending the state’s 32-year-old dual holiday in January honoring both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee and making the day a holiday celebrating King only.
In a signing ceremony at the state Capitol, the governor said he believed the debate on the issue was enlightening and not divisive.
“I expected this debate would divide us, but instead during the debate we listened to each other, and the conversation brought us together. This is an education bill in which the discussion educated each of us, and we learned that history needs to be viewed not just from our own lens but through the eyes and experience of others,” he said.
Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, passed 24-0 in the Senate and 66-11 in the House. Wallace filed the bill for Hutchinson, who announced in advance of the session that giving King a stand-alone holiday was part of his policy agenda. Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, carried the bill in the House.
A bill to strip Lee from the holiday failed during the 2015 session, Hutchinson’s first as governor. Hutchinson said Tuesday he had other priorities in that session, but he said that since then, he has been focused on the issue.
“During the last two years, I have been engaged in discussions with legislators, with friends, everybody I could grab and say that I think this legislation giving Martin Luther King Jr. his own day is important for the state of Arkansas,” he said.
While the bill was moving through the Legislature, Hutchinson demonstrated his support for it by testifying in committee and fielding questions from some legislators who questioned the need for it or objected that it was disrespectful to Lee.
Under the new law, the second Saturday in October, the month of Lee’s death, will be known as Robert E. Lee Day, a memorial day to be celebrated by gubernatorial proclamation and not a state holiday. The third Monday in January will remain a state holiday but will honor King only.
Also, Arkansas public schools will be required to provide instruction on American civil rights leaders, including instruction on King timed to correspond with the state and federal King holidays.
Schools also will 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.”
The state Department of Education will be charged with developing instructional materials on both topics.
“The legislation encourages our young people to learn about the decisions of national leaders in times of crisis and on matters of conscience,” Hutchinson said Tuesday.
Arkansas has observed Robert E. Lee Day since 1947. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill to make the third Monday in January a federal holiday honoring King, and in 1985 Gov. Bill Clinton signed a measure creating the dual state holiday honoring both the Confederate general and the civil rights leader.
Now only two states, Alabama and Mississippi, have holidays commemorating King and Lee together.
Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, who spoke on the House floor in support of the bill, said after Tuesday’s ceremony, “It’s an amazing and yet humbling day for us here in Arkansas. It tells my state and the nation who we really are, and it should give them a glimpse of what our future looks like.”
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, chairman of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus, who also spoke in support of the bill on the House floor, said Tuesday, “I think Senate Bill 519 represents an opportunity for us to build from something that’s solid and something that’s unifying.”
Rizelle Aaron, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, who testified in support of the bill in committee, said Tuesday that legislators who represent predominantly white districts should talk to their constituents about what the Legislature and the governor did and why.
“I think it’s a stepping stone and a talking point to bringing us closer together, and that’s what this is all about,” he said.