LITTLE ROCK — Officials with the state Republican and Democratic parties joined with Little Rock and Pulaski County officials Monday in calling for an end to the state’s practice of honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee with a dual state holiday.
Speaking at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony at the state Capitol organized by the Arkansas NAACP, state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said, “The time is today to honor Martin Luther King with a sole holiday in the state of Arkansas.”
State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, said it is ironic that Arkansas jointly honors King, who sought to end laws that separated blacks and whites, and Lee, who fought on the side of the Civil War that sought to keep the races separate and preserve slavery.
“This is one time separation can be a good thing,” she said of stripping recognition of Lee from the holiday.
The ceremony, which followed a downtown parade honoring King, was held one week after the start of a new legislative session. The Legislature did not meet and state offices were closed Monday in honor of both the civil rights leader and the Confederate general.
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.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said one of his goals for the current session is to make the third Monday in January a holiday just for King, calling it “the right thing to do.” He has said he favors creating a day of recognition, but not a state holiday, in October for Lee.
An effort to remove commemoration of Lee from the holiday failed in 2015 amid outcry from defenders of the Confederate general’s legacy. Hutchinson was not actively involved in that effort to separate the observances, which was led by a bipartisan group of legislators.
Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde said during Monday’s ceremony the combined holiday hurts Arkansas’ image and its ability to attract new residents.
“I firmly believe that commemorating a champion of the civil rights movement and a Confederate general on the same day is contrary to the spirit of unity and equality that many have fought so fiercely to create. This archaic law is not only insensitive to Dr. King’s legacy, it is a blemish on our state,” Hyde said.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said the state should have a solo holiday for King, who he said advocated principles of nonviolence, love and equality that are still “so very, very important.”
The Pulaski County Quorum Court and the Little Rock Board of Directors have filed separate resolutions urging the Legislature to make the King holiday a stand-alone commemoration.
Elliot asked people in the audience not only to urge their legislators to separate the observances but also to go to the Capitol during the session and show their support.
“Please show up. Do what Dr. King asked us to do. Make sure we don’t leave this session and have this discussion this time next year,” Elliott said.
As of Monday, no bill to separate the King and Lee observances had been filed.