LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas has taken a first step toward celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday in January and moving its Robert E. Lee holiday to the fall.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday made the unusual move of testifying before a legislative committee. He says King should be celebrated separately for his civil rights accomplishments, and that Lee fought for the wrong side in the Civil War.
Hutchinson told the panel about discovering that his great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy during the war.
"There's one part of this education bill that creates some controversy and that is separating the holiday of Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King. I support this both from the standpoint of what is said should be taught in our public schools about the history, about the leadership, about the individuals, both in the Civil War era, but also in the civil rights era. And I support this because from the Civil War until 1947, we did just fine without a state holiday for Robert E. Lee," Hutchinson said to the committee.
Hutchinson said celebrating King's contributions to the country is a recognition that deserves its own day. He said Sen. David Wallace's proposed bill does not diminish life and work of other people in history.
"Having a slave owner's birthday celebrated on that same day is not right, and we need to make this right," Wallace said.
Arkansas is one of three states to recognize King and Lee on the same day. Alabama and Mississippi also do so.
King and Lee both have January birthdays.
Under a bill approved Thursday in a voice vote by the Senate Education Committee, Arkansas' Lee holiday would be moved to the second Saturday in October, the month in which Lee died. The bill also sets requirements for what is taught about civil rights and the Civil War.
The latest proposed measure will now go before the full Senate.
Sen. Blake Johnson was critical of separating the dual holiday.
"This separation is just like segregation whenever we do this action, in my opinion. The best healing that we can have as a state or nation is integration of ideas," Johnson said.
Johnson said the integration of King and Lee's histories are important to the healing process.
Two years ago, a similar proposal to remove Lee failed before a House Committee.
Robert Edwards, a commander of the Arkansas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, spoke against the latest effort.
"Now we can't celebrate the accomplishments of two men on the same day because they're different races," said Edwards. "If that's not a racist act, then what is a racist act?"