LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday endorsed a bill to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a stand-alone state holiday and end the state’s dual holiday celebrating both King and Robert E. Lee.
In a news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson said he supports Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, which would designate the second Saturday in October as Robert E. Lee Day, a memorial day to be celebrated by gubernatorial proclamation and not a state holiday. The third Monday in January would remain a state holiday but would honor King alone.
The bill also would require that Arkansas public schools provide instruction on American civil rights leaders, including King, with the instruction timed to correspond with the state and federal King holidays.
Schools also would 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.”
Hutchinson said Wednesday, “I think this would not only be the right thing to do and would help us to unify the state, bring us together, but I do believe that it would help advance the image of the state of Arkansas as one that is receptive to all and that respects minorities and that we’re beyond the division of the past.”
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.
An effort to remove commemoration of Lee from the King holiday failed in the 2015 session amid outcry from defenders of the Confederate general’s legacy. Hutchinson acknowledged Wednesday that getting the new bill passed will be “an uphill battle.”
“There’s still a lot of sentiment that is left over from the Civil War, believe it or not,” he said.
Hutchinson said before the session began that one of his goals was separating Lee from the King holiday.
DuShun Scarbrough, executive director of the state Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, said Wednesday the commission “commends Gov. Asa Hutchinson for wanting to separate the joint holiday of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.”
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said of the bill, “We’re definitely satisfied, and it’s consistent with what we’ve wanted to see from the beginning.”
Asked about the inclusion in the bill of a memorial day for Lee, Flowers said she believed it would be acceptable to the caucus.
“It’s not something that would prohibit us from voting for the bill, bottom line,” she said.