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Why Arkansas still won’t stop celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day

Dewey Spencer of Judsonia, Ark., holds a portrait of Robert E. Lee after an Arkansas House Committee hearing. (Danny Johnston/AP)
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In Arkansas, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated on the same day as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The incongruity is not lost on all.

A bill supported by civil rights groups that would have removed the commemoration of Lee to make the third Monday in January King’s holiday alone failed to advance in an Arkansas House of Representatives committee Wednesday, Reuters reported.

Republican Rep. Nate Bell, who sponsored the bill, said that while he has “absolute and total respect” for Lee, honoring the Confederate general on the same day as the African American icon is problematic. “There are people who profit from racial division,” Bell told the Associated Press. “It needs to be off the table.”

While the measure wouldn’t have created a state holiday for Lee (too expensive, Bell argued), it would have designated Nov. 30 as Patrick Cleburne-Robert E. Lee Southern Heritage Day, as marked by a governor’s proclamation. Cleburne was a Confederate general who lived in east Arkansas, the AP noted.

“This would allow all [Arkansans] to honor our heritage and progress without them being in conflict with each other,” Democratic Rep. Charles Blake said as he presented the bill, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. “We can celebrate our legacy and unity and celebrate the culture of our Southern roots.”

While only two residents spoke in favor of the bill during the hearing, more than two dozen signed up to argue against it.

According to the Democrat-Gazette:

Wayne Fuller from Helena-West Helena, a community that already celebrates Cleburne, told the committee he thought the holiday should be left alone because “separate is not equal.”
“We have enough wedges in politics and elsewhere,” Fuller said. “I think [Southern Heritage Day] is an awesome idea and we would benefit from the tourism, but I really wish we could celebrate a non-separate but equal holiday.”

“I oppose this bill very strongly because I just think we’re taking everything away from our heritage,” Kelly Singleton said at the hearing.

And Kay Tatum said: “This is an outrage on the Southern people, of all races. It is a matter of our culture being diminished, disrespected and pushed aside for political reasons.”

“I think Martin Luther King, if he were here today standing beside me, would tell you, ‘Why can’t we celebrate a birthday of two men, one of color and a white man?’ ” John Crain said, according to the Associated Press. “Surely we’ve progressed that far in our race relationships.”

When Bell asked why former state representative Loy Mauch insisted on having both men honored on the same day, Mauch, according to Little Rock NBC affiliate KARK, explained: “They’re both great Americans.”

The bill failed on a voice vote in committee, but some lawmakers did support the measure. “It creates some awkwardness because if you celebrate Robert E. Lee right now on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you’re seen as a racist,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger said, according to the Democrat-Gazette. “And Robert E. Lee wouldn’t want that.”

This has been a thorny issue for decades in Arkansas — and in the South generally — as Lee commemorations already existed when the federal government established a holiday for King in 1983. Lee was born Jan. 19, 1807, and King was born on Jan. 15, 1929.

Back in the 1940s, Arkansas state legislators declared Jan. 19 as a day to commemorate Lee’s birthday. But when MLK Day was introduced in 1983, state employees were required to decide whether they wanted to take off from work on the birthday of King, Lee or their very own, the Associated Press reported. By the next legislative session, the state ended up combining the commemorations into one that acknowledged both King and Lee.

The Democrat-Gazette prints annual editorial remembrances of both men.

In 2007, the editorial commemorating Lee read:

In the end, what stays with us, and returns with greater power and endurance every January 19th, is the man who saw through victory as clearly as he did defeat, and recognized both as imposters. Despite his legend, the general could not command events-yet he remained in full command of his response to those events. Which is why not all the rains that have come and gone since his time have been able to wash out the single name that still sums up whatever is best in us and in this, our ever fecund, always forgiving South: Lee.

Alabama and Mississippi also combine the days. Good on them, Arkansas Rep. Trevor Drown (R) said at the Wednesday hearing. “We keep bringing up the fact that there are only three states. Everybody else is left. Well, I keep hearing the federal government talk about how we need to be more like Europe. Well, this is the state of Arkansas. This is what our heritage is.”

Virginia, Lee’s home state, split up the holidays in 2000, honoring King on the same day as the rest of the country, while recognizing Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the Friday before MLK Day.

And in Arkansas, many public events on the day revolve around King and his legacy. For instance, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) spoke at an MLK Day event about the slain civil rights leader’s legacy and didn’t mention Lee, nor did he attend any Lee-related events, AP reported.

After this latest effort failed, Bell said he’s unsure whether he plans to revive his push. But Democratic Rep. Frederick Love told Reuters he would continue to pursue a similar effort.

“Obviously I’m disappointed,” said Love. “It would be a good, positive step in race relations.”