Could Monday be Arkansas’ last King-Lee holiday?

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

On Monday, Arkansans will join Mississippians and Alabamians in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and General Robert E. Lee on the same day.

It might be the last time for Arkansas.

The three states are the only ones that combine the holidays – and that includes Lee’s home state of Virginia, which separated them in 2000.

The dual holiday here stems from the fact that Arkansas was already celebrating Lee’s birthday each Jan. 19 when the King holiday was created in 1983 and set for the third Monday of each January. Because the holidays were right on top of each other, legislators combined them in 1985. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton signed the legislation.

Some state legislators tried to separate the holidays in 2015, but they failed. Vocal opponents filled committee rooms and argued their case – which, I’m telling you, can be a surprisingly effective tactic, particularly if legislators have mixed emotions or are unsure which way the wind is blowing on an issue.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson began that legislative session without a strong opinion on the holiday and eventually supported separating the days, but he didn’t really fight for it. Since then, he has made it an emphasis. In July 2015, he wrote the state president of the NAACP that he would “do what is in my power” to give King his own day. Last January, he said lawmakers should separate the holidays and said he would attend events honoring King that day without mentioning anything about honoring Lee. In December, he presented a list of 19 priorities for the upcoming legislative session, most of them relatively noncontroversial, but the holiday was one of them. In a press availability Jan. 4, he said Lee was “on the wrong side of history,” a noteworthy comment in a state where some people still revere Lee. He said he wants to move Lee’s day to October but not make it a holiday for state employees.

Hutchinson is not the type of governor who relishes a big fight over a hot-button social issue. Those kinds of controversies are bad for business, which is why he’s been trying to persuade legislators not to introduce a transgender bathroom bill like the one in North Carolina.

But in this case, Arkansas’ current situation is already bad for business and bad for the state’s image. For a Southern state to pair the country’s greatest civil rights leader with a Confederate Civil War general just looks bad, and it doesn’t help persuade out-of-state and out-of-country business executives that Arkansas is a forward-looking place. Meanwhile the dual holiday makes a statement to the state’s own citizens that we really aren’t all-in on civil rights.

When the bill comes up in committee, it probably will attract the same opponents it attracted last time – those who will argue that Lee was a man of honor and an important figure in Arkansas and American history, and that the day commemorates Southern heritage, not slavery.

It will be interesting to see which legislators oppose the separation, and the reasons they give. It was only a few months ago that a few of them were threatening action against the University of Arkansas because some female basketball players knelt rather than stand during the national anthem. Yet the entire state honors alongside Dr. King a general who fought to give us a different anthem entirely. Had Lee succeeded in his efforts, you and I would be Confederates, not Americans, standing only for “Dixie.” For us, “The Star-Spangled Banner” would be just a historical reference to a country we used to be a part of, the equivalent of “God Save the Queen” now. The American flag would be just another country’s flag.

The fact that the still-powerful governor has prioritized giving King his own day makes it much more likely it will happen. But nothing is certain. Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream, but he couldn’t predict the future, and neither can I.

Related: Arkansas flag’s one star a reminder or a celebration?

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