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The battle for MLK Day: Should King still share a holiday with General Lee?

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called for the state to no longer honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on the same day as General Robert E. Lee. The practice continues in Mississippi and Alabama. 

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    Visitors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington read the civil rights leader's quotes as snow falls on the National Mall on January 17, 2016. King's birthday has been honored as a federal holiday since 1983.
    J. David Ake/ AP
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Holidays to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gen. Robert E. Lee should be "distinguished and separate," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told state lawmakers last week.

The commander of the Confederate Army and the Nobel-Prize-winning civil rights leader were born in two dramatically different centuries, but just four calendar days apart: Jan. 19, 1807, and Jan. 15, 1929, respectively. That coincidence has caused decades-long controversies for states that want to honor them.

Today, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas still commemorate both men with a shared holiday on the third Monday of January, the day most other states — and the federal government — celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That leaves state politicians and the public to debate whether the combination is a case of bureaucratic efficiency, or an affront to King's anti-racism legacy. 

A decision to separate the holidays "would show how far we've come," Arkansas State Rep. Fred Love told Reuters. The move would have to be passed in the state legislature, which reconvened Jan. 12. Several other states, including Georgia and Florida, already honor Lee separately.

Some say the time for change is ripe given a shift in American attitudes toward Confederate icons over the past year. After the white supremacy-inspired mass shooting of nine black worshipers at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last June, "a systematic dismantling of Confederate symbols [flags, statues, and buildings] has swept across the South," as The Christian Science Monitor's Lisa Suhay noted. In South Carolina, many cheered when the state house's Confederate flag was finally furled for good, and Virginians are now asking if Lee-Jackson Day, which honors two Confederate leaders, should be retired.

But many say that rewrites history. "It's cultural cleansing. It's fascism is what that is," Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesperson Ben Jones said of motions to end the holiday, celebrated the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

It's a popular argument for those who admire Lee's storied personal dignity, or don't believe it's directly contradictory to remember a leader who fought against the Union and opposed black suffrage the same weekend as a civil rights leader who wanted to unite Americans across racial lines. Some say consolidating the holidays is simply more efficient. 

Others point to the historical timeline: in Arkansas, for instance, Robert E. Lee day was instituted in the 1940s. It wasn't until 1983 that then-President Ronald Reagan somewhat reluctantly signed MLK Day into federal law, and it took nearly 20 years after that for every state in the country to follow suit: New Hampshire, the last in the nation, created an MLK holiday in 1999.

The editorial board of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, however, believes it's time for a change, and that precedent is no excuse. In 1947, the first year the state formally celebrated Lee's birth, "the movement for civil rights was already at work in Arkansas," the editors wrote:

It takes little imagination to look inside the minds of lawmakers 82 years after Appomattox Courthouse to see what kind of message they wanted to send in commemorating Lee....Lee was a great leader of men, a man of honor and dedication to his state....[but] No state can honor Martin Luther King Jr. by placing him on the same stage as the general who led the fight to preserve a horrid institution that, had it survived, would have placed King in shackles.

As Arkansas considers the change, other states' difficulties to institute MLK Days are a reminder that resistance to honoring the man himself, not only his cause, is far from a Southern-only struggle.

New Hampshire approved Civil Rights Day in 1993, but it took another six years for lawmakers to sign on to a holiday remembering King by name. Similar resistance emerged in Utah. Some attribute it to racism; others, to King's anti-Vietnam War views and controversial aspects of his philosophy. Others say that the progress he fought for is what really deserves honor, more than King's life itself.

"I couldn't accept Civil Rights Day because individuals matter," then-N.H. Rep. Arnie Arnesen, who pushed for the MLK bill, told New Hampshire Public Radio. "Movements don’t exist but for some remarkable human being who inspires change."

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