- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - When Arkansas lawmakers debated an effort two years ago to end the state’s practice of commemorating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, the proposal failed repeatedly before a House panel - with opponents filling a committee room to blast the idea as belittling the state’s history.

This time, a similar proposal is headed toward its first floor vote after easily clearing a Senate committee with little to no dissent.

The biggest differences this time around are a Republican governor willing to spend some political capital on the proposal and a strategy that appears aimed at maneuvering around the committee where the effort stalled in 2015. But that doesn’t ensure the bid to give King a stand-alone state holiday will become a reality this year.

“There’s no guarantee this is going to get through a committee. There’s no guarantee it’s going to pass the Legislature,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters last week as he detailed his plan to remove Lee from the King holiday. “All I can do is express my support for it and say I believe it is the right thing to do for the people of this state.”

Hutchinson’s plan cleared the first hurdle last week, with the Senate Education Committee endorsing the proposal after the Republican governor took the unusual step of appearing before the panel to lobby lawmakers himself. An easel nearby displayed an example of the notice posted on state offices announcing they’re shuttered on the third Monday in January in honor of the two men. The notices, which have become the target of criticism on social media in recent years, pose an unnecessary choice to Arkansans on who they’re supposed to honor that day, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson and sponsors of the bill are casting it as an education issue, pointing to a provision that would require the state to expand what’s taught in public schools about civil rights and the Civil War era. It’s a move that’s intended to counter arguments from critics who equated removing Lee from the day with forgetting part of the state’s past.

The provision may clear the path for the bill’s passage, putting it before the education committees in both chambers. Efforts to remove Lee from the King holiday foundered repeatedly two years ago before the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The effort has been endorsed by the Legislative Black Caucus, despite reservations members expressed this year about the possibility of another day being set aside to honor Lee. The legislation designates the second Saturday in October as a memorial day for Lee, marked by a gubernatorial proclamation but not a state holiday that would require any offices to be closed.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would not support legislation that upholds the intent of the holiday as a federal and a state holiday and why we would make it murky by also recognizing someone else,” said Democratic Rep. Vivian Flowers, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Both Lee and King were born in January. Arkansas has had a holiday in honor of Lee since 1947 and one for King since 1983. That year, agencies required state employees to choose which two holidays they wanted off: King’s birthday on Jan. 15, Lee’s birthday on Jan. 19 or the employee’s birthday. In 1985, the Legislature voted to combine holidays.

Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi are the only states to honor the men on the same day.

If the measure clears the Senate this week, it could still face challenges in the House. Opponents of the move didn’t fill up the committee room last week like they did two years ago, but they’re just as adamant that they view removing Lee as an affront to their Confederate heritage. They also have tried to portray the combined holiday as a sign of unity.

“Now we can’t celebrate the accomplishments of two men on the same day because they’re different races,” Robert Edwards, commander of the Arkansas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the day before the panel endorsed the bill. “If that’s not a racist act, then what is a racist act?”

The upcoming votes on the move could test just how deep divides still run in a state known around the world for the fight in 1957 over integrating Little Rock’s schools. The debate will unfold in a building that includes a portrait inside of the Gov. Orval Faubus, who fought to keep the schools segregated. Outside is a monument to the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High.

“This does not change history, but simply reflects a high regard for the importance of the civil rights movement that changed America for good,” Hutchinson said.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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