Gov. Asa Hutchinson joyfully signed the bill today ending a King-Lee holiday in Arkansas. Henceforth, the day will honor only the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You can watch the ceremony at the link below.
It wasn’t easy. The governor and others deserve compliments. But I’ve chosen this week to rain on the parade, for many of the same reasons Ernest Dumas was moved to contrast Pope Francis’ teaching on the poor and Republican Party actions. Let’s not kid ourselves amid all the backslapping.
Stripping Lee’s name from a holiday the third Monday in January did little to move Arkansas toward equal opportunity. It’s far easier to find on the public record repudiation of much of what King stood for.
My column this week:
Don’t cry for Robert E. Lee
Congratulations are in order for Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He decided this year to devote the weight of his office to end the state’s embarrassing dual holiday for slavery defender Robert E. Lee and civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.
People like Nate Bell and Fred Love put the ball in play in 2015. Several made it happen this year, but none more than the governor. He got notable supporting oratory from people like his nephew, Sen. Jim Hendren, and the usually silent Rep. George McGill, who enthralled the House with the perspective of a black man who’d felt the lash of discrimination as a student at the University of Arkansas.
Much mutual backslapping followed the victory Friday and the governor waited until Tuesday for a full-dress ceremonial bill signing.
Now let me rain on the parade of people singing “We Shall Overcome” and comfort Lee’s defenders. For one thing, it was embarrassing that it was so hard to pass a bill taking us off the front seat of the Dixie Flyer bus with Alabama and Mississippi. Nobody celebrated Lee on the third Monday in January, so nothing practical was at issue. But a noisy number deeply resented granting higher status to a black man than to the Confederate general. Few of them knew the legislated day of honor grew directly from Southern resistance to desegregation in the 1940s.
But here’s the thing. The Confederacy’s legacy lives on. The Arkansas Republican revolution was achieved in the political equivalent of a nanosecond thanks to disdain, if not hatred, for a black man, Barack Obama. The continuing resistance to his legitimacy gave Donald Trump an Arkansas landslide.
The South hasn’t quit fighting.
The Arkansas legislature wants to change the state’s Constitution to make it harder to vote. King died fighting for the franchise.
Where King wanted to eliminate segregation root and branch, the legislature is working root and branch to aid resegregation –through school transfers that disregard racial motive, charter schools and public payment of tax money to private schools, including some whose existence is owed to segregation.
At his death, King was planning a poor people’s march. Today, the Arkansas legislature and its Republican representatives in Congress see poverty as a character flaw. Lawmakers believe – if they believe in public assistance at all – that the working poor must jump more hurdles to get health care or food for their children (and many legislators want to dictate what food they may buy.)
A scholarship program created to send more people to college is funded by the hopelessly poor desperately chasing lottery longshots. Legislative requirements for the money now guarantee that it goes disproportionately to white people of comfortable economic means.
The Arkansas legislature also recalls sharecropper days with landlord-tenant law. Failure to pay rent remains a crime in Arkansas, no matter how uninhabitable the shelter a landlord provides.
It is also impossible to imagine that Martin Luther King would have supported discrimination against people on account of religion or sexual orientation. The Arkansas legislature is hard at work attempting to do just that, with better than a dozen bills aimed at denial of equal rights.
Minorities of various stripes, including philosophical, are also at the root of legislative extortion attempts at Arkansas Tech. These legislators want to put colleges in bondage to their narrow philosophy, academic freedom be damned.
So whatever the end of the King-Lee holiday might do for Arkansas’s image, it will have scant impact on daily life and ring hollow against dozens of votes with more tangible impact.
To borrow liberally from King’s “dream” speech on the occasion of elevation of his holiday: I come to remind Arkansas of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of empty symbols or to take the tranquilizing drug of self-congratulation. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.
I have a dream.