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King-Lee Fight Shows State Grappling With Its Past (Andrew DeMillo Analysis)

3 min read

LITTLE ROCK – Before Arkansas lawmakers convened for this year’s legislative session, they were preparing for protracted debates over the future of the state’s Medicaid expansion, a middle-class tax cut plan and an overcrowded prison system. Few could have predicted that the most heated fight would come over whether a Confederate general and a civil rights icon should be commemorated on the same day.

The debate over Arkansas’ status as one of three states that celebrates Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day is a stark reminder of just how much the state struggles with its troubled past as one of the key battlegrounds in the civil rights movement.

The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee’s second rejection of a proposal to remove Lee from the holiday last week came in spite of an argument from its sponsor who tried to balance respect for the Confederate general with concerns about what the dual holiday was doing to the state’s image.

“This bill is important to improve the image of our state and perceptions about our state around the nation and around the world,” said Republican Rep. Nate Bell of Mena. “The fact we’re one of three states that continue to celebrate a combined holiday is regularly used as proof that we’re somehow backward, racist, et cetera.”

It’s an image that’s tough to shake for a state known for the 1957 fight over desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School. That crisis still looms large over the Legislature. The state Capitol includes a portrait of former Gov. Orval Faubus, who fought to keep the school segregated. And outside the building is a monument to the nine black students who desegregated the school.

The desegregation crisis has echoed throughout recent policy debates, with the state taking over the Little Rock School District the same day Bell’s proposal was first heard. Gay rights groups have often invoked the Central High crisis in their challenge against the state’s gay marriage ban, and recent legislation barring cities from expanding anti-discrimination laws. The state’s troubled past was also invoked in the fight over Arkansas’ voter ID law, which was struck down by the state’s highest court in November.

But the proposal to remove Lee from the King holiday has exposed the divide the state still faces over its past. While supporters of the move say it’s a move to no longer elevate the state’s past defending slavery, opponents are casting it as an effort to downplay Arkansas’ heritage.

Robert Edwards, commander of the Arkansas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, called the proposal “racist” and compared separating the days commemorating the two men to segregation.

“We’re never going to drive out hate until we can find a point in time that we can celebrate the accomplishments of two great American heroes with different colors,” Edwards said.

The raw emotions surrounding the debate were laid bare when John Crain, a white Mountain Home lawyer who spoke against the legislation, at one point said he was “proud to call my colored brothers my brothers.”

That drew the ire of Democratic Rep. John Walker of Little Rock, a civil rights attorney who serves on the committee.

“Having referenced to persons of my race as colored brothers is a relic of slavery,” Walker, who is black, told Crain. “It’s insulting.”

It’s an uncomfortable debate, but one that’s unlikely to go away soon. Democratic Rep. Fred Love of Little Rock said he plans to move forward with a similar proposal to remove Lee from the King holiday. Unlike Bell’s proposal, it wouldn’t create a new memorial day honoring Lee.

“It’s an issue of progress. How far has Arkansas progressed since the civil rights movement? How far has Arkansas progressed since the Little Rock Nine?” he said. “Yes, we’re talking about the holiday, but it’s symbolic of a larger picture.”

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/ademillo.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)

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