LITTLE ROCK — The Senate voted Tuesday to approve a bill to remove commemoration of Robert E. Lee from the state’s dual holiday celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lee.
In a 24-0 vote, senators approved Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville. The bill goes to the House.
The measure 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 only.
The bill also would require that Arkansas public schools provide instruction on American civil rights leaders, including instruction on King that would be 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.”
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.
Efforts to strip Lee from the King-Lee holiday failed during the 2015 session.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said that making the third Monday in January a stand-alone holiday for King is one of his policy goals for the session and has endorsed Wallace’s bill.
Presenting the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday, Wallace said he hasn’t seen parades for Lee on the holiday, just parades and other events for King.
“It’s a day that needs to stand alone. It’s a day that needs to stand for Martin Luther King,” he said.
No one spoke against the bill in the Senate. Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, who chose not to vote, said later he considers King a personal hero but said he did not think King would want the holiday changed.
“He’s the kind of guy that knew you can’t legislate that kind of stuff. That’s got to be from the heart,” he said. “You don’t change a heart with laws.”
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, who also declined to vote, said he opposes doing away with a state holiday for Lee.
“We’re doing so many things to diminish our Southern heritage,” he said.
Clark has filed a rival bill on the King-Lee holiday, currently in “shell” form with the details to be filled in later. He said his plan is for his bill, SB 692, to propose making the third Monday in January a holiday celebrating King and civil rights activist Daisy Gatson Bates and include Lee in the state’s observance of President’s Day on the third Monday in February.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, has filed a separate bill that proposes the same changes Clark described. House Bill 1995 also would mirror the educational requirements in Wallace’s bill, which Clark said will not be in his bill.