By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson is still at the point in his young administration where legislators tend to give him much of what he wants, so it will be interesting to see if he gets this: separating the state’s commemorations – this year on Jan. 18 – of the birthdays of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
In response to a question during a press availability in his office Jan. 6, Hutchinson left no doubt where he stood on the issue, which flared and then faded in the 2015 legislative session. “It’s important that that day be distinguished and separate and focused on that civil rights struggle and what he personally did in that effort,” he said of King.
Hutchinson said lawmakers should vote to separate the holidays when they meet in their next regular session in 2017. “As to this year, I’m certainly going to be celebrating Martin Luther King’s special day. I’ll be attending Martin Luther King events and celebrating the great contributions that he has made to this country,” he said.
He did not say anything about Lee.
The legislation last year to give King his own holiday was pushed by Reps. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, and Rep. Nate Bell of Mena, then a Republican and now the Legislature’s only independent. Asked last January about the issue when he was still brand new in his office and was looking at a very full plate, Hutchinson said, “I haven’t thought about it, so I’d have to give it some more thought. History is important to me, and we’ve just got to balance those, obviously,” according to the Associated Press.
As the legislative session continued, Hutchinson did support separating the commemorations but focused on other issues, such as his tax cut package and the private option, the controversial government health care program that today purchases private health insurance for 200,000 Arkansans.
Clearly, Hutchinson is more willing to confront the issue now. On July 7, 2015, he wrote in a letter to Dale Charles, president of the Arkansas NAACP, “The acts of violence in Charleston have sparked national debate on numerous issues. In Arkansas, the state’s dual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and General Robert E. Lee on the same holiday has reemerged as an issue that must be addressed. As Governor, I will do what is in my power to strive for an exclusive Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as develop a strategic plan with valuable stakeholders, including the NAACP and state legislators.”
Hutchinson is sensitive to issues that affect Arkansas’ image and could affect its economic development efforts. Last year, he originally supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which, depending on your perspective, either defended the consciences of traditional believers or allowed for discrimination against homosexuals. When a national firestorm erupted and businesses like Wal-Mart expressed their opposition, he sent the bill back to the Legislature so that a new one could be written that attempted to split the difference by mirroring federal law.
There has been no such firestorm with the King-Lee holiday, but there could be someday. Arkansas is one of only three states, the others being Alabama and Mississippi, that combine the holidays. Even Lee’s beloved home state of Virginia separated the days in 2000. Regardless of the intentions, Arkansas’ pairing, which occurred in 1985 two years after the King Holiday was created nationally, seems like a poke in King’s eye. It’s like the state is saying, “Yes, we’ll give the civil rights leader his day, along with the rest of the nation. But we’ll also honor the Confederate general, just to make it clear that we’re not 100 percent sold on this.”
The King Holiday is meant to bring people together. In Arkansas in 2015, its pairing with Lee’s birthday was a source of division. Is the answer therefore to divide the holiday, with one day remembering King and another recalling Lee? It could be after the Legislature meets in 2017.
Related: The Confederate star on Arkansas’ flag: a history lesson, or a celebration?