Arkansans celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday separate from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday for the first time Monday, joining 47 other states and Washington, D.C., in commemorating the civil-rights leader’s birthday alone on the third Monday of January.
The passage of Act 561 of 2017 took years of lobbying in the Arkansas Legislature and failed numerous times before it was successful in separating the observance of both holidays, overcoming fierce opposition from several lawmakers and groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Proponents of the change said the combination of celebrations was offensive to the memory of King, who was shot and killed April 4, 1968, on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Opponents of the change argued it was disrespectful to the memory of Lee.
Arkansas now commemorates Lee on the second Saturday of October, near the anniversary of his death. Alabama and Mississippi are the only remaining states that celebrate the two men together.
People commemorated King’s memory across Arkansas and the nation Monday with speeches about political divisiveness, unity, racism, the path toward equality and continued progress for members of minority groups, as well as the lessons that will be handed down to coming generations.
“We’ve decided to be united” was the theme of the King day ceremony Monday on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol. It followed more than 2 miles of the 35th annual parade that featured marching bands and community groups celebrating King’s life and wisdom.
The Little Rock NAACP hosted the ceremony, which featured Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas pastors including National Day of Prayer President Ronnie Floyd.
More than 100 people gathered at the Capitol in winter coats and wool hats on a chilly but sunny afternoon and listened to prayers and speeches about addressing racism and racial disparities through actions and fellowship in faith.
“This is a great day in Arkansas! A long time coming!” one woman shouted before the ceremony.
Leaders celebrated Hutchinson’s role in separating the celebrations and his support of the NAACP’s effort to do so, gifting him with a black jacket with an illustration of the day’s theme embroidered on the back.
Hutchinson, who received a standing ovation upon arriving at the podium, spoke of his admiration for King and King’s sense of justice, mastery of language, and actions.
“He made a difference every day,” Hutchinson said. “He was a man of action.”
Hutchinson also touted his own initiatives as governor to advance minority groups and others in Arkansas, including mental health crisis centers, re-entry programs for former prisoners and coding classes for all Arkansas students.
Dale Charles, president of the state conference of the NAACP, called for applying the lessons of King to today in opposing what he called offensive language coming from President Donald Trump. He mentioned Trump’s reported reference last week to not wanting immigrants from “s***hole countries” and preferring immigrants from Norway.
Charles also noted Trump’s words about “both sides” causing problems during racially charged protests last year in Charlottesville, Va.; his continuing to accuse five minority-group members of a Central Park homicide in New York after their convictions were vacated after DNA testing; and his arguing for years that former President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen.
Charles implored the people in the crowd to call their senators and U.S. representatives — listing phone numbers for each of them — and ask them to take a stand against Trump’s comments, which he said King would not condone and which he said would be absorbed by children.
“We’ve got to come back to some morals, some values,” Charles said.
Floyd, of Cross Church in Rogers, noted widened racial divides in the country after protests over the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Mo., police in August 2014.
“It has been like a fire that has received a mighty wind,” he said.
In an animated speech punctuated by numerous cheers and standing ovations, Floyd said conversations are necessary to fight racism but argued that healing would not occur without people first surrendering to God. He called repeatedly for an effort toward unity in the country.
After the ceremony, attendees noted their desire for unity in trying political times and their satisfaction that the King and Lee celebrations had been severed from each other.
“It’s more validating,” said Marilyn Shelley, who traveled from Pine Bluff to the Little Rock ceremony. “To me, the mixture was — it had mixed messages.”
Robbie Henry, a pastor with Rhema Redemption Ministries in Pine Bluff, said she felt the country had taken a step backward lately. She wanted to participate in the King celebration for the message of unity and for the equality for which King stood.
Stephanie Clay, along with her husband, James, and 10-year-old daughter Ana, attended the ceremony Monday after she had talked with James’ mother about being more involved. They work together and read the news together, and she wanted a way get involved in this moment of political divisiveness.
“I think it was a good call to action,” Clay said.
The ceremony in Little Rock was one of many across the metro area and Arkansas.
The Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission hosted its 25th Mega Kingfest on Monday, a day of service projects in the Little Rock area.
Hundreds marched in Fayetteville from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Razorback Road to the university’s student union. Aside from the 34-degree temperature, Gary Winters with the Masonic Hill City Lodge No. 347 said he could feel the chilling effects of today’s national political climate.
April 4 will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. His message to judge people based on their merits and character couldn’t be more timely, Winters said.
“He couldn’t make it any simpler than that,” Winters said. “It gets convoluted by people putting a spin on it.”
The gathering took a decidedly political tone when Mireya Reith, founder of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, called out Trump’s contentious rhetoric on immigration. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program sits in limbo, and referring to other countries in derogatory terms doesn’t help, Reith said. She urged the rally’s participants to contact their representatives.
Francisco Soza, 23, of Beliz arrived at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville to study mechanical engineering. He said he’s looking at politics in the United States with fresh eyes, but the discrepancy between the rich and poor serves as a common international thread.
King’s message resonates across global borders, Soza said.
“He wanted peace, he wanted equality,” Soza said. “I’m aware of what he was trying to do, and I understand that.”
At least 200 people gathered outside Parsons Stadium in Springdale to march down Emma Avenue despite snow and wind. Others gathered for speeches in Texarkana and Hot Springs, as well as other cities around the state.