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In Arkansas, a joint holiday for Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King coming to an end

In Arkansas, a joint holiday for Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King coming to an end
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. (AFP/Getty Images)

For Vivian Flowers, the two men were never on the same historical playing field.

One fought as a general in the Confederate Army. The other, a century later, sought to undo the ramifications of slavery and Jim Crow laws — inequality, poverty, lack of education, to name a few.

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So she puzzled over a question when, as a child, she traveled with her family from their Torrance home to visit family in Arkansas for summer and winter vacations: Why did the state honor both Robert E. Lee and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

In a joint holiday. On the same day.

"It was just wrong, and as I got older — learned more about history — it was even more wrong to me," says Flowers, now 47 and a Democratic state representative and chairwoman of Arkansas' Legislative Black Caucus. "This was totally wrong and not right."

Now, the state is set to sever this awkward link.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on his mount, Traveller.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on his mount, Traveller. (Associated Press)

This month, state lawmakers passed a measure removing Lee from the January state holiday honoring King, the civil rights leader assassinated in 1968.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who took the unusual step of testifying on the law's behalf before the Legislature, says he'll sign it.

Like many Southern states marred by the legacy of slavery and racial segregation, Arkansas has had to balance preserving history with not offending its residents.

In 1947, after similar efforts in other Southern states, Arkansas passed a law creating a January holiday honoring Lee's birthday. The vote was, in part, an effort to push back against talk of desegregation and ending Jim Crow laws.

Decades later, in 1983, Congress passed a measure creating a federal holiday for King, also born in January. (Jesse Helms, the archconservative Republican senator from North Carolina, vigorously opposed the holiday and charged that King had collaborated with communists.)

At the time, Arkansas required state employees to choose which of the two days they wanted to take off as a holiday: King's birthday on Jan. 15 or Lee's birthday on Jan. 19.

Then in 1985, Arkansas lawmakers combined the holidays, to be observed on the third Monday in January. Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate both men on the same day.

State Sen. Dave Wallace, a Republican whose district is nearly 75% white and spans portions of Jonesboro, sponsored the legislation to end the dual holiday.

"My ancestors fought and died with the Confederacy," he said Saturday. "And I believe, truly, it's never been right.... You can see and hear it in the pain and voices of the black community."

Wallace says that in recent weeks he has received hate mail from a few people labeling him a "traitor." Two years ago, lawmakers tried to pass similar legislation, but it died in a committee.

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"All we did was something that should have been done years ago," he said. "Four or five years from now a small minority of people will still be talking about it."

Indeed, some see the bill as an abandonment of the state's past. Before the vote on the House floor, where the bill passed with a 66-11 vote Friday, a handful of lawmakers voiced their discontent.

We are taking Robert E. Lee and we are putting him in the basement and we're acting like we're embarrassed that he ever existed


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"We are not separating Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King," Republican state Rep. Jana Della Rosa, who opposed the measure, told lawmakers. "We are taking Robert E. Lee and we are putting him in the basement and we're acting like we're embarrassed that he ever existed."

Debate over how states and cities acknowledge their Confederate past has come to the forefront in recent years.

In 2015, following the mass shooting by an avowed white supremacist who killed nine black members of a Charleston, S.C., church, debate renewed over the state flying the Confederate battle flag at the Capitol. Lawmakers voted to remove the flag from the grounds.

In New Orleans that year, after calls from, among others, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and native son and jazz great Wynton Marsalis, the city opted to remove a public statute honoring Lee. The decision had been held up in federal court until this month when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously cleared the way to remove the monument — along with other Civil War relics.

"This win … will allow us to begin to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future," Landrieu said in a statement earlier this month.

For some, the passage of the Arkansas legislation is a step in the right direction, but it did not go far enough.

While it ended the dual holiday, the bill sets aside the second Saturday in October to honor Lee with a memorial day, not a state holiday, marked by a gubernatorial proclamation. (The measure also mandates additional curriculum in Arkansas public schools be dedicated to the civil rights movement and the Civil War.)

Even the bill's House sponsor, state Rep. Grant Hodges, a Republican from the northwest corner of the state, agrees it's not perfect.

"This may not be the perfect solution … [but] it is a solution," he said.

Flowers, who said Saturday that the bill's passage was progress for the state, understands why some want to see the holiday remain in place.

"I get that there is a Confederate history here," she said. But King and Lee, she added, "should not be celebrated together."

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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