LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers on Friday gave final legislative approval to a bill to remove commemoration of Robert E. Lee from Arkansas’ 32-year-old dual holiday celebrating Lee and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, goes to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who pushed for the change and testified in committee in support of it.
The House approved the bill Friday in a 66-11 vote. The Senate approved it 24-0 last week.
Hutchinson said in a statement Monday, “The support for a separate holiday to recognize Martin Luther King far exceeded my expectations and speaks well of the General Assembly and our state. This bill was one of my priorities, and I was honored to testify for it in both chambers. I look forward to having a signing ceremony that emphasizes the historic dynamic of this new day.”
Hutchinson’s office said the governor will sign the bill Monday in a 12:45 p.m. ceremony at the Capitol.
Under the bill, 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.
The bill also will require that Arkansas public schools 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.
Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, who carried the bill in the House, called the dual holiday honoring a civil rights leader and a Confederate general “a mistake” and said some find it offensive. He said the bill was an opportunity to correct that mistake.
“It’s an opportunity to show the citizens of our state and the whole country that we are capable of coming together, not out of political correctness or any other silly reason but out of respect and mutual understanding,” he said.
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said the effort to strip Lee from the holiday was “being done for political correctness.”
“We are taking Robert E. Lee and we are putting him in the basement and we are acting like we are embarrassed that he ever existed,” she said.
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, spoke in support of the bill and discussed the history of the dual holiday. She noted that Arkansas has observed Robert E. Lee Day since 1947 and Martin Luther King Jr. Day since 1983, and that after President Ronald Reagan signed into law a measure creating a federal holiday for King in 1983, Arkansas two years later created a state holiday on the same date honoring both King and Lee.
Flowers said Arkansas was one of seven states that resisted honoring King by giving his holiday a different name or combining it with another holiday. Today, only Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi honor King and Lee together, she said.
She asked House members to vote for the bill so Arkansas can be known “as a state that embraces (King’s) legacy.”
Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, said he was concerned the bill could be followed by efforts to make other changes, such as altering the state flag.
Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, told House members, “We’re creating some space for education here. That’s all we’re doing.”
An effort to remove Lee from the holiday failed during the 2013 legislative session. Hutchinson was not actively involved in that effort.