The state of Arkansas will no longer commemorate Confederate General Robert E. Lee and civil rights leader Martin Luther King (MLK) on the same day. In March, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed legislation to end the practice. Only MLK will be honored with a state holiday on the third Monday in January. Lee will now be honored with a memorial day on the second Saturday in October. It is not a state holiday, but it will be marked with a gubernatorial proclamation.
Lee was born January 19th and Arkansas has had a holiday honoring him since 1947. MLK was born January 15th and the state has had a holiday honoring him since 1983. In 1985 the State Legislature voted to combine the holidays, commemorating both men on the national holiday that honors MLK. Many of the state’s citizens were unhappy with the decision.
The Arkansas NAACP, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, and others who opposed the joint holiday said honoring MLK on the same day as Lee was divisive and that it was a reminder of the horrors of slavery for the state’s African-American residents. Hutchinson, who strongly supported the bill, said the joint holiday forced a “false choice” between the two men and hurt Arkansas’ image.
Those who supported the joint holiday questioned the need for removing Lee from the holiday and argued that honoring the two men on the same day honors all of the state’s history. They also said that honoring Lee with a memorial day instead of a state holiday makes Arkansas’ Confederate history seem less important.
The new law also requires the Arkansas Department of Education to increase classroom content about civil rights and the Civil War, including more emphasis on civil rights leaders such as MLK, as well as more instruction about civilian and military leadership during the Civil War. Hutchinson said this would unify the state and improve its image.
Governor Hutchinson also said, “I expected the debate to divide us, but instead during the debate we listened to each other and the conversation brought us together…the discussion educated each of us, and we learned that history needs to be viewed not just from our own lens, but through the eyes and experiences of others.”