LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An Arkansas legislator said Wednesday it is inappropriate to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and the leader of the Confederate Army on the same day and has proposed ending the state's decades-old tradition of honoring Robert E. Lee.
Arkansas is one of just three states to jointly celebrate King, the black civil-rights leader, and Lee, the white Confederate general, on the third Monday of January. Some have labeled the practice incongruous, and most public celebrations center on King.
Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, said that while he has "absolute and total respect" for Lee, and that his own daughter attended Washington & Lee University in Virginia, honoring both men together highlights racial divides.
"There are people who profit from racial division," he said. "It needs to be off the table."
A photo of a sign noting the King and Lee holiday was circulated on Twitter on Monday, drawing comments from across the country.
Bell's bill would not create a separate holiday for Lee, as in the general's home state of Virginia. Bell said creating a new state holiday would cost too much.
Arkansas has recognized Lee's birthday since the 1940s. State lawmakers voted to recognize King's birthday as a state holiday in 1983, and combined the celebrations two years later.
Alabama and Mississippi also recognize both men together. No bills have been filed in those states this year to change the holiday.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday attended a day of service honoring King and called the civil-rights leader someone who inspired others to make tough, but correct choices. He did not mention Lee or attend any event in the general's honor.
Hutchinson said Wednesday that he hadn't decided whether to support Bell's proposal.
"I haven't thought about it, so I'd have to give it some more thought," Hutchinson said. "History is important to me and we've just got to balance those, obviously."
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley spoke about King in his inaugural speech Monday, but did not mention Lee. The state Sons of Confederate Veterans hold their annual Lee celebration on his actual birthday, January 19, not the observed holiday.
Mississippi's Legislature adjourned early Monday to mark the day. One Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Hillman Frazier, called King and Lee "two fine gentlemen of the South."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi; and Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Alabama. Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant