LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas lawmakers gave final approval Friday to legislation removing Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the holiday honouring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The state House approved the proposal with a 66-11 vote and sent it to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who had urged lawmakers to end the dual holiday. Five representatives voted present, effectively voting no on the bill. Once the bill is signed into law, Mississippi and Alabama will be the only states that honour Lee and King on the same day.
The bill sets aside the second Saturday in October to honour Lee with a memorial day, not a state holiday, marked by a gubernatorial proclamation. It also expands what is taught in schools about the Civil War and civil rights.
Hutchinson, who promised last year to push for ending the dual holiday, made the unusual move of testifying in front of two separate legislative committees this month to speak in support of the proposal. Hutchinson told the panel that King deserved his own day of recognition, and that ending the dual holiday would be a healing moment for the state.
Hutchinson's office said he would sign the measure into law on Monday with a ceremony that the governor said would emphasize the "historic dynamic of this new day."
"The support for a separate holiday to recognize Martin Luther King far exceeded my expectations and speaks well of the General Assembly and our state," Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office.
Republican Rep. Grant Hodges presented the bill in the House and acknowledged that it wasn't perfect. The representative said he has several Confederate memorials in his district and that the measure is not meant to disrespect Confederate history in any way. He said the proposal was an effort to give both King and Lee their due, individually.
"This is not a perfect solution, but it is a good solution," Hodges said.
A similar effort to remove Lee from the King holiday repeatedly failed before a House committee two years ago. Opponents of the measure said the legislation belittled the state's Confederate heritage by not giving Lee his own holiday.
The vote on Friday followed an emotional debate about King, Lee and Arkansas' Confederate and civil rights histories.
"We are not separating Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King," Republican Rep. Jana Della Rosa told lawmakers before the vote. "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."
Della Rosa told the other legislators that this marked the first time she had been angry about a bill that she was voting against. She had filed a competing bill to move Lee to the state and federal holiday in February honouring George Washington, but said she withdrew the bill.
Democratic Rep. Vivian Flowers said King was an American hero and that Arkansas was one of the last few states to recognize the federal holiday designated for him. Flowers, who is the chair of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus, said the state included Lee as a compromise.
Flowers implored her fellow legislators to pass the bill, "not out of political correctness, but out of a sense of unity that we can support his law the way it was intended."
Both Lee and King were born in January. Arkansas has had a holiday honouring Lee since 1947, and one for King since 1983. That year, state agencies required employees to choose which of the two days they wanted to take off as holidays: their own birthday, King's birthday on Jan. 15 or Lee's birthday on Jan. 19. In 1985, the Arkansas Legislature voted to combine the holidays.
Supporters of ending the dual holiday include the state NAACP, the city of Little Rock and Pulaski County. The latter two 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.
Republican Rep. Brandt Smith asked legislators to think about what the next step may be if the measure was passed. Smith asked what could potentially happen to the single star above the state's name on the state flag that represents the Confederacy.
Tafi Mukunyadzi, The Associated Press