Gov. Asa Hutchinson is endorsing a proposal to end the dual recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day each year.
He took to the lectern Wednesday to say that, as Americans celebrate the slain Civil Rights icon, residents of the state are presented with a choice.
“That choice that is there, it divides us as Arkansans and as a nation,” Hutchinson said.
He acknowledged the bill, SB519, would face an “uphill battle." Similar legislation failed in 2015.
Hutchinson says the concurrent holiday is deterring business and tourism from the state. He's expressed his support for the cause for months and says championing this bill is his last agenda item for this legislative session.
“Dr. Martin Luther King has a legacy that should be celebrated by African-Americans. But he has a legacy that should be celebrated by all Americans. And we should be united in that front and not divided by a choice that has been presented as matters of convenience or for other purposes.”
The bill makes MLK Day, celebrated on the third Monday of January, a standalone state holiday. It offers the Governor the privilege of proclaiming the second Saturday in October as Robert E. Lee Day, a state memorial day.
It also requires the Department of Education to develop special curriculum on the history of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.
Two white lawmakers, Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville) and Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers) are the bill’s sponsors.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Wallace. “Martin Luther King said the most segregated hour of the week was the hour we’re all in church,” he said, adding he thinks very few white people sit in church thinking about Robert E. Lee on his holiday.
“Individuals that are black… are celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. On that same day, we’re celebrating the life of a slaveholder,” he said. “That’s wrong.”
Hodges says that the historical education component was especially important for him.
“This bill I think makes certain that we will be teaching about the Civil War and about important military and civilian leaders who made an impact for our state and our country,” Hodges said.
Arkansas is one of three states, along with Alabama and Mississippi, to officially celebrate King and Lee on the same day.
Rep. Josh Miller (R-Heber Springs) said he voted against the initiative before and would again. He says he appreciates King and calls slavery a “dark spot in our nation’s history,” but says slavery is a non-issue today and separating the holidays amounts to re-writing history.
“I am proud to be a Southerner. That doesn’t mean I’m always proud of everything that goes along with our Southern heritage, but again, it’s history. We can’t go back and undo it,” said Miller.
Dushun Scarbrough, Executive Director of the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, expressed support for the bill.
“Both men, as you know, have historical value. Each in his own time represent very different chapters in American history,” he said, but “we feel as though Martin Luther King should have a day of his own.”
Rep. Vivian Flowers (D- Pine Bluff), who chairs the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus, says she’s still studying the bill.
“We’re looking at the language, just to make sure that, technically speaking, any other issues could be addressed in an amendment,” she said.
But Flowers says she’s generally supportive of requiring some specific historical curriculum on the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.
“I think that’s something that we should have already been doing. I think that’s something I hope we’ve already been doing,” she said.
The bill was sent to the Senate Education Committee, where it will get its first hearing.