- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Fans of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee won a battle for the long-dead warrior Wednesday by ensuring Arkansas remains one of only three states to jointly celebrate him alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

The Democratic sponsor of a proposal to separate celebrations of the black civil rights icon and the white leader of the Confederate Army didn’t outright concede defeat following the voice vote by the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, but said he probably won’t run the bill again this session. It was the fourth time the panel has rejected separation efforts, and it would now take more members to reconsider the bill, 14, than it would to advance it, 11.

Chairman Nate Bell, R-Mena, who sponsored a similar bill that also failed twice, said after the meeting that the proposal is on “life support” at best.

Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi are the only states to honor both the men on the same day - the third Monday in January. Legislation to end the joint celebration was filed in January after a photo of a sign noting the King and Lee holiday was circulated online, drawing comments and criticism.

The bill by Rep. Fredrick Love, D-Little Rock, would have removed Lee from the existing holiday and instead create a memorial day for Lee on the second Friday in January, close to the general’s birthday.

“We can be on the right side of history or we can be on the wrong side of history,” Love told the committee. “There is a rift in race relations right now and this would just be one more step to advance race relations in Arkansas.”

He said after the vote that he hopes lawmakers will try again to separate the holidays.

Lawmakers who oppose the change, arguing that separating the holidays belittles Southern heritage and is discriminatory, have said their constituents overwhelmingly oppose it.

Legislators didn’t take public testimony on Wednesday, but Robert Edwards, a commander with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said after the meeting that he was pleased with the outcome. He said separating the celebrations would be discriminatory and harm race relations.

“Isn’t this what diversity should be accomplishing, where we can recognize the great people in our state regardless of what color they are?” Edwards said.

Republican Rep. Trevor Drown of Dover said the repeated votes on the issue have widened Arkansas’ racial divide.

“I think it does more to harm those relations - where there wasn’t an issue, now it seems like it’s inserting an issue,” Drown said.

A few dozen students and young people from across the state, mostly black, attended the meeting. Tre’na Leonard, from Star City, was disappointed with the outcome of the vote, which she said makes Arkansas appear stuck in the past.

“Martin Luther King was trying to make everybody come together and Robert E. Lee was trying to keep everything separate,” Leonard said. “They were fighting for completely different reasons, so why would you give them the same day?”

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Follow Allen Reed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Allen_Reed

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