PART 2 – How the Dr. King & Lee holidays ended up on the same day.
Guest article by David Ferguson
This is Part 2 on how Arkansas made the third Monday in January a holiday for both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee.
This article does NOT address how or whether to undo the holiday combo. It is a controversial issue and I will leave that to the politicians. The goal of this article is ONLY to explain how we got into this situation, since the issue is expected to come up in the 2017 Arkansas legislative session.
When the holiday was created, I was a legislative employee and was assigned to assist legislators to put their ideas in the form of legislation.
1985 – Moving Dr. King’s Holiday to the date of the federal holiday.
In 1983 legislation added a state holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual birthday (Jan 16). To keep from paying for an additional state holiday, the legislation: 1. Did not close state offices; 2. Ended the closure of state offices on Lee’s birthday (Jan 19); and 3. Allowed state employees vacations days for two of three days – King day, Lee day, and the vacation day the state allows for the employee to observe his or her birthday.
After Arkansas created a King holiday, a federal holiday was created for Dr. King, not on his actual birthday, but on the third Monday in January. This meant the holiday issue would come up again in the 1985 Arkansas legislature.
In 1985, the issues would be the same as in 1983: 1. Legislators did not want to pay for an additional day off for state employees; 2. If an additional vacation day for state employees was not added then the Lee day was in the crosshairs for being demoted or eliminated. It is always harder to take something away than to give something new.
The date of the federal holiday created a new problem. Every few years the federal holiday for Dr. King falls on the actual birthday of Robert E. Lee. If Lee’s birthday fell on a Sunday then the Lee day would be observed on the following Monday which is also the federal holiday for Dr. King.
Legislators knew the federal holiday for Dr. King and Lee’s birthday would fall on the same day in the following two years (1986 and 1987). In 1986 Lee’s birthday was on Sunday which meant it would be observed on Monday, January 20, 1986 which was also the federal holiday for Dr. King. In 1987, the federal holiday for Dr. King would fall on January 19, 1987, which was Lee’s birthday.
To navigate between these issues, sponsors filed legislation that became Act 985 of 1985. The act moved Arkansas’ Dr. King day to the national holiday and closed state offices on that day, but it also moved Lee’s day to the same day. Their solution guaranteed the issue would come up again.
Note: As with the 1983 legislation, I recall which legislators were involved in the drafting but I do not have a copy of the bill showing who ultimately were sponsors.
1999 – Arkansas General Assembly session closes in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King
During a legislative session, the Arkansas General Assembly normally works through all state holidays. The one exception is the third Monday in January. In 1999 the legislature passed Act 306 of 1999 prohibiting the legislature from meeting that day. The closure is in observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and not for Robert E. Lee. Arkansas Code 10-2-128 says: “In respect to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in observance of his birthday, neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate shall convene in session nor shall any of their committees meet on the third Monday in January.” The lead sponsor was then Representative Michael Booker.
Attempts to separate King/ Lee day
1989 – House Bill 1213 of 1989 by then Representative Bill Walker attempted to separate the King and Lee days. The Lee Holiday would have been moved to the fourth Monday with state offices being open on that day and with state employees having to choose to take off either on the Lee day or to take the vacation day they are allowed for the employee’ birthday.
2015 – Two bills were filed on the subject in 2015.
House Bill 1119 of 2015 by Representative Fredrick Love would have moved the Lee Day and changed it to a memorial day instead of a holiday. (State offices remain open memorial days.) The bill did not get out of committee.
Another State Representative filed HB1113 which was much more complicated by including elements not directly related to the King and Lee observances. HB1113 proposed to: 1. Remove Lee’s day from the holiday list and make it a memorial day in November; 2. Create a memorial day for Confederate General Patrick Cleburne to be observed on the same memorial day for Lee and it named the joint day Southern Heritage Day; and 3. Repeal the memorial day for Jefferson Davis. The bill did not get out of committee.
2017 – At this writing no bills have been filed on the subject but it is likely legislation will be filed. The Governor has expressed his support of separating the observances. Whatever legislation is filed on the subject, legislators must deal with the same issues legislators dealt with in 1983, 1985, 1989, and 2015 – whether they want to remove Lee’s day as a holiday or whether to pay for an additional holiday. Everything else is just a matter of detail.
If bills are filed on the subject this session you may monitor the progress through the General Assembly’s web page: http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/ . The most interesting discussion will be in the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees. The House of Representatives video records their committee: http://www.arkansashouse.org/video-library . The Senate continues to fail to provide video recordings of their meetings.
I offer no advice and take no position on the subject. I am only providing some background to the debate that is expected in 2017.
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Link to PART 1 of this article: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./ Robert E. Lee Day – How did we get in this mess? Part 1