Last week, I was a student ambassador for Philander Smith College and the Social Justice Institute at a House Committee that discussed Rep. Nate Bell's proposal to divide the Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Overall my experience was eye-opening and suspicion-confirming. Arkansas is still very much so racially divided. Southern white men are proud of their Confederate heritage and can't be persuaded to see past their arrogance and "ancestry" in order to separately honor men regarded as American heroes, on separate days, to afford equal celebration and ease racial tension.
As a black woman, a genetic descendant of Africans, born in the United States of America, afforded equal protection under the law, I see no redeeming qualities in Robert E. Lee. My history books taught me that he was a secessionist and a racist. He waged a war that led to the deaths of thousands of men, he opposed giving freed slaves the right to vote and he argued that the brutal institution of American slavery was better for blacks than was living in Africa and that their bondage was necessary for their deliverance. He fought for white male autonomy, the oppression of blacks, secession from the Union and white supremacy. So, no, he is not an American hero in my eyes.
It is repulsive to me that the citizens of Arkansas believe that his legacy and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should be honored dually. They are complete opposites, standing for causes neither would support, and yet they share the same date on the state calendar.
King stood for freedom from oppression, justice for all Americans, equality in all aspects of American life, including employment, housing, education, food security and safety. King denounced racism and envisioned a world where "Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of 'interposition' and 'nullification' — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. ... That one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." And I am disheartened to say that in 2015 little significant progress has been made.
Along with the other African Americans in the chamber last week, I was called "colored" by John Crain, a Mountain Home lawyer who testified against the bill. I take extreme offense to the term and the casual usage presented by Crain with little regard to the synonymous nature of the word to the terms "nigger," "negro" and "nigris." The term "colored" is drenched in the stench of slavery, racism and bigotry and ultimately demeans my worth as a human being.
I am no more colored than a white man. I have been the same color all the days of my life, save for tropical vacations that deepened the glow of my melanin, while many of the white men in that hearing turned green after hearing those who spoke for the bill, turned blue in the face waiting for their turn to spew venom in defense of Robert E. Lee and blushed red from embarrassment after the "colored" remark was made.
Arkansas is still a Confederate state that institutionally supports racism by celebrating a holiday for a non-Arkansan who advocated for slavery and secession from the United States on the same day federally proclaimed to honor the legacy of a civil rights leader, diametrically opposed to Lee's ideology and practices. The legacy of King has not been protected in Arkansas and the struggle for equality, racial peace and justice is nowhere near its conclusion.
Kaya Herron is a senior at Philander Smith College and an intern at the Arkansas Times.