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Civil rights hero paired with Confederate general: Legislators refuse to separate Lee and King holidays

Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., two men who fought for opposing causes, share the same holiday in several southern states. Arkansas is currently challenging the pairing of the two.

In 1983 Coretta Scott King lobbied and succeeded in getting Congress to pass an act instituting the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. She celebrated the first Martin Luther King holiday in January of 1986. The holiday is in January to commemorate King’s birthday on January 15, but the holiday is usually celebrated on the third Monday of the month.

The Robert E. Lee celebration was founded to commemorate Lee’s military service and dedication to the country. Robert E. Lee day is on Jan. 19, his actual birthday.

Robert E. Lee day, unlike Martin Luther King Jr. day, is not a national holiday and is only acknowledged in southern states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida. Certain states like Arkansas celebrate both Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Day on the same day.

Frank Huebert, director of service and outreach ministry said he was originally confused about the combined celebration.

“I first found out a year ago,” Huebert said. “I was walking by an employment office in town the week before Martin Luther King day, and noticed an official sign from the state saying that the office would be closed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee day. I was really confused of the juxtaposition of these two men,” Huebert said.

Huebert explained how combining these two days is controversial.

“We are not going to celebrate Nazis Germany day on the same day as Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Huebert said. “If we are celebrating a Confederate general then what does that mean? For me there was just a lot of confusion, so I was happy to see that Arkansas was trying to address this situation.”

The public has not responded well to having a man who fought for nonviolence and reconciliation paired with a Confederate general. Here in Arkansas, Republican representative Nate Bell and Democrat representative Fred Love filed legislations in late January to divorce Robert E. Lee day from Martin Luther King day.

Dale Charles, president of the National Advancement of the Association of Colored People, declared that such a legislation is past due.

“King was about humanity,” Charles said. “And that King would take in any race, creed or color that was not given the same privileges or rights under the Constitution as everyone else. He deserves a holiday on his own because of the fact that his movement was making a difference in the United States.”

Yet on January 28, the bills proposed where turned down, legislators claiming that taking away Robert E. Lee day would diminish respect for Southern heritage.

“I was really surprised when Arkansas did not pass the bill separating the two days,” Huebert said.

Representative Nate Bell said he is not ready to give up and will bring the legislation back to the committee.