Arkansas remains one of few states to honor Robert E. Lee on MLK Day
By JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press Writer
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas state employees will have Monday off, thanks to either a slain civil rights leader or the commanding officer of the Confederate Army.
Every year, the doors of the state Capitol bear notices that offices will be closed the third Monday of January to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Arkansas is one of three states to commemorate both men with a state holiday. The others are Alabama and Mississippi.
“I know my students that come to the university seem to come with a bit of nostalgia for the Old South … particularly Robert E. Lee, who has the mystique of being the man who only reluctantly seceded,” said University of Arkansas history professor Jeannie M. Whayne. “He’s become, well, one book’s title says it all, ’The Marble Man,’ the ideal of the Southerner.”
The pull of Civil War history, particularly the Confederacy, remains strong in Arkansas. Hats, T-shirts and pickup truck back windows still bear the “bars and stars” of the Confederate battle flag. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, typically runs a long editorial noting the general’s birthday each year. King receives a similar tribute.
In its Lee tribute last year, the newspaper’s editorial page read: “Despite his legend, the general could not command events — yet he remained in full command of his response to those events. Which is why not all the rains that have come and gone since his time have been able to wash out the single name that still sums up whatever is best in us and in this, our ever fecund, always forgiving South: Lee.”
Lee, born 201 years ago, received the honor of having a county in eastern Arkansas named after him during Reconstruction. Another county in Arkansas is named for Lee’s adversary, President and former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Streets bearing their names intersect in Little Rock, the state’s capital city. Lee Avenue is much longer. The city’s King Drive runs from the state Capitol campus southward.
Commemorating Lee’s birth dates to 1943, when Arkansas legislators declared it one of several “memorial days” the governor would commemorate by a proclamation. In 1947, legislators amended the law to name Jan. 19 a legal holiday in honor of the Confederate general.
In 1983, lawmakers voted to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official state holiday, but required state employees to choose which two holidays they wanted off — either King’s birthday on Jan. 15, Lee’s birthday on Jan. 19 or the employee’s birthday.
During the next regular legislative session in 1985, they voted to combine King and Lee’s holiday commemorations for the third Monday in January. Employees got to keep their birthdays as a holiday.
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, a 20-year state senator, voted in favor of making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday in 1983. Beebe did not cast a vote in the 1985 decision to combine the two holidays.
Asked if he would attend a Lee event, Beebe said he “wasn’t aware of any.” He deferred when asked if the state should cede the day to King alone.
“The Legislature has to make the decision,” Beebe told The Associated Press. “As a practical matter, virtually all the celebrations have been centered around MLK.”
Whayne, who said she might attend an “accurate, historical reenactment of Appomattox Court House” on Lee’s birthday, chuckled when she heard the governor’s response.
“The governor is a very good politician,” she said.
Arkansas also has another combination commemoration. On President’s Day — the third Monday in February — the state recognizes Daisy Gaston Bates, who mentored the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School under Army guard in 1957.
State Sen. Tracy Steele, who sponsored the 2001 bill honoring Bates, said he received broad support for the measure. While some question honoring Lee, the large number of events celebrating King’s life always outweigh the nearly silent response to the Confederate general’s nearing birthday, he said.
“It certainly has been discussed. In past years, there’s not been the type of community outcry or internal legislative support to get it done,” said Steele, D-North Little Rock. “But it does seem the question comes up every year.”
Published in The Messenger 1.21.08