The state of Arkansas is about to split the holidays commemorating civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, leaving only two US states that still memorialize the pair on the same day.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, is scheduled to sign a bill on Tuesday that would create separate holidays for King and Lee.
The bill says that the governor will have the option of holding a state memorial day for Lee on the second Saturday of October, while King’s holiday will remain on the third Monday in January.
This leaves Mississippi and Alabama as the only states where King and Lee still share a holiday.
Since 1985, the third Monday in January has been reserved as an Arkansas state holiday in commemoration of King and Lee, two monumental figures in American history who symbolize opposite sides of the country’s racially controversial foundations.
General Lee, the leading military commander of the Confederacy during the US Civil War, was memorialized on his own in Arkansas from 1947 to 1983, when then-President Ronald Reagan approved of a law that gave a federal holiday to King, a Baptist minister who led the US Civil Rights Movement a century after the Civil War. In 1985, then-Governor Bill Clinton combined the state’s holidays for King and Lee.
The new legislation was easily approved in both chambers of the Arkansas Legislature.
“I want to thank members of the House for their bipartisan support and passage of SB 519,” Hutchinson said, according to KUAR. “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.”
The bill will also develop increased education curriculum on the civil rights movement and the state’s history in the Civil War.
Both sponsors of the bill are Republicans. Rep. Grant Hodges, who sponsored the bill in the state House of Representatives, said he hopes the legislation will unify Arkansas.
“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 out of mutual understanding,” Hodges said, according to KUAR.
Other Republicans in the Arkansas Legislature called the bill an affront to Lee. Despite historians’ beliefs that he likely opposed slavery personally, Lee led Confederate troops in the fight to maintain chattel slavery in 11 secessionist states of the South, including his home state of Virginia.
“We are taking Robert E. Lee and we are putting him in the basement and we are acting embarrassed that he ever existed,” Rep. Jana Della Rosa said on the House floor in denunciation of the legislation. “It’s no different than if we went out and we took that statue of the Confederate Soldiers and put it down in the basement and said nobody’s going to look at it again.”
Blaming political correctness, Della Rosa added that the bill “conveys a sense of embarrassment of our heritage,” and that Lee “does not deserve this. Robert E. Lee was a great man.”
Separating the holidays will allow more opportunity for the children of Arkansas to learn about the past, said Rep. George McGill, a Democrat who spoke in favor of the bill.
“Let’s do something for our children,” McGill said. “Let’s do something for the state of Arkansas by creating some space where they can take time to talk about Robert E. Lee and what he did that day when he painfully surrendered and reached his hand across and said enough is enough. Let’s do that for our children. We shouldn’t confuse them.”