LITTLE ROCK — A proposal to end Arkansas’ dual holiday for Robert E. Lee and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. easily won Senate approval Tuesday, but faces an uncertain prospect in the House where a competing plan would honor the Confederate general the same day as the nation’s first president.
The Senate voted 24-0 in favor of the proposal to remove Lee from the state and federal holiday honoring King on the third Monday in January. Only two other states, Alabama and Mississippi, honor the men on the same day.
"It’s a day spent in prayer. It’s a day spent in remembrance. It’s a day that needs to stand alone," Republican Sen. Dave Wallace told the Senate before the vote. "It’s a day that needs to stand for Martin Luther King."
The proposal would designate the second Saturday in October as a state memorial day, not a holiday, to honor Lee. It also requires the state to expand what is taught in schools about civil rights and Civil War history.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has urged lawmakers to approve the change, which he says would help unify Arkansas and improve its image.
"While both men have left their mark on history, dually celebrating them, as we have done in Arkansas since 1985, is an obvious incongruence," Hutchinson said in a statement after the vote.
A similar effort to remove Lee from the King holiday repeatedly failed before a House committee two years ago after opponents said it belittled Arkansas’ Confederate history. Eleven Senate Republicans didn’t vote on the latest measure Tuesday, though some expressed reservations about the move.
Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield, who called King a hero, questioned the benefit of the move.
"I don’t think that changing a day is going to improve our race relations. I just don’t think it will," Stubblefield, who didn’t vote on the measure, told reporters.
The Senate-backed bill may face competition from an alternate House proposal filed Monday that would move Lee to the state and federal holiday in February honoring George Washington. That measure would also move the state holiday honoring civil rights leader Daisy Gatson Bates from Washington’s birthday to the King holiday. Bates mentored the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
"It makes sense and it maintains Robert E. Lee being on a state recognized holiday and Daisy Gatson Bates being on a state recognized holiday," said Republican Rep. Jana Della Rosa, who proposed the measure. "It seemed like a nice compromise for everybody."
Both Lee and King were born in January. Arkansas has had a holiday in honor of Lee since 1947 and one for King since 1983. That year, agencies required state employees to choose which two holidays they wanted off: King’s birthday on Jan. 15, Lee’s birthday on Jan. 19 or the employee’s birthday. In 1985, the Legislature voted to combine holidays.
Supporters of ending the dual holiday include the city of Little Rock and Pulaski County, which passed resolutions last year endorsing the move. The 2015 effort to end the dual holiday was fueled in part by photos widely circulated on social media of a sign noting the shared King and Lee day.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo