Rep. Nate Bell's
bill to end inclusion of Robert E. Lee
in the Martin Luther King Jr.
holiday is before committee this morning.
Lee's defenders turned out to fight the bill. Claudia Lauer of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Tweeted memorably:
Lots of military medals, mustache wax and riled up folks.
David Koon will be reporting.
The two men are currently honored in the holiday the third Monday in January. Bell's bill would make it strictly a King holiday, but create a memorial day — not a holiday — in November to honor Lee and Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne, who lived in Helena.
Confederate sympathizers included the famous former Rep. Loy Mauch, a Lincoln hater and slavery defender in years past. Mauch said, "Lee was not a rebel." Bell interjected, "We're not here to talk about secession."
Of course, those defending Lee ARE still fighting the Civil War. Which is exactly why there shouldn't be a state holiday in his honor.
UPDATE: The bill failed, on a voice vote, to get a favorable recommendation.
Bell said he'd explore options on continuing to push the legislation.
UPDATE FROM DAVID KOON:
Opposition — including what appeared to be several centerfolds from "1850s Beardstyling Monthly" magazine — was out in force during a committee meeting this morning to determine whether Rep. Nate Bell's bill to divorce the holidays honoring Robert E. Lee and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would go forward. The bill eventually failed on a voice vote.
Though Bell, who chairs the committee, originally said there was no one signed up to speak in favor of his bill, two speakers in favor of divorcing the holidays eventually did speak: Kelly Duda, a Little Rock filmmaker who recently wrote an editorial in favor of abolishing the Lee holiday for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU-Arkansas.
A motion was passed to limit public comment on the bill to ten minutes per side, but nine speakers in opposition to the bill were able to speak. Included in those speakers was former Arkansas Rep. Loy Mauch of Bismarck, who made the case that Lee was a great American who deserved to be honored by the state.
Mauch began his defense of Lee at the arrival of Lee's family in North America in 1640, and was eventually asked several times by Bell to speak solely on Lee's significance and the bill at hand in the interest of time. Mauch noted that MLK never spoke out against Robert E. Lee or the Confederacy, and said of Lee: "This man committed no crimes, broke no laws, and violated no part of the Constitution his family helped create, yet the historically uneducated continue to denigrate him with their false accusations."
Robert Kelly from Helena, who also spoke in opposition to the bill, said he comes from a community that both embraces and promotes diversity. He, like several of the speakers, said that a joint holiday was a symbol of diversity. "I just think [the MLK/Lee holiday] really should have been left alone," he said. "Separate is not equal, and that was a really big deal not so many years ago... We have enough wedges in politics and elsewhere."
Kelly Duda, speaking in support of the bill, said that the joint holiday is "bad for business" for the state, and gives a bad impression of Arkansas every time a "closed for MLK Day and Robert E. Lee Day" notice goes up on a state agency's door. "I don't see how this is a diversity issue," Duda said. "I think having Lee Day on MLK Day is just a jeer to the memory of the man who fought for equality."
Rita Sklar of the ACLU said that her organization was for the bill because they believe the joint holiday is an attempt to cancel out what King stood for. "Dr. King was not a black hero," she said. "He was not for black rights. He was for civil rights. He was for freedom, for justice, for liberty. Those are American values."
In closing in favor of the bill, Rep. Charles Blake told the committee that the bill, if passed, would be good for the state. "A vote for this bill is a nod for our progress, legacy and unity," he said, "as well as a vote for our southern heritage."
The bill was then brought to a voice vote. After it failed, many of those in the room gave a long round of applause.
Asked if she was disappointed in the outcome of the vote, Sklar said: "Sick is a better word. I'm sick at heart. It's very disturbing to see how much hatred still exists, and fear – fear that if you celebrate a civil rights leader, if you celebrate a black man, that some people feel you're taking something away from the white people, whoever those are. That's a real sign of ignorance."
Bell said that he wouldn't speculate on whether today's failed vote would be seen as a black eye for Arkansas nationally. "I have been accused of being a black eye for Arkansas nationally," he said. "Awful people like to make awful accusations."
On whether he'll try to run the bill again, Bell said: "At this point, if I feel like I have enough votes I will. I'm going to be having some conversations with folks and see what it takes to get them to a point where they feel comfortable voting for something."