Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday signed into law a bill [Senate Bill 519, PDF] that separates the celebrations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate General Robert E Lee. King and Lee were both born in mid-January and up until the bill was signed, the state of Arkansas celebrated both men on the same day. The law now allocates days several months apart for each, making Lee’s day of recognition the second Saturday in October, which is near the anniversary of his death. Lee’s holiday will not be a holiday for state employees like King’s, but the bill requires students of the state be taught [Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report] about both Lee and King. Although previous attempts to separate the holidays failed, Arkansas’ legislature voted in favor of the bill 66-11.
Debate has intensified in the past year over the acceptability of confederate symbols in everyday life. Earlier this month a federal appeals court ruled [JURIST report] that New Orleans can remove confederate statues. In September a judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi [official website] dismissed [JURIST report] a challenge to the constitutionality of the Mississippi state flag. In August 2015 a judge in Texas denied a request for a temporary restraining order to halt the University of Texas at Austin from relocating a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis [JURIST report]. In July it came to light that Dylann Roof, who is charged with the murder of nine black church members in South Carolina [JURIST report], prominently posed [NYT report] with the confederate flag. Also in July South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the state house [JURIST report]. Although the Charleston shooting led to renewed focus on the use of the Confederate flag, controversy over the flag has persisted for years. In June of last year the US Supreme Court ruled that state governments can restrict [JURIST report] the kinds of messages printed on specialty license plates after the Sons of Confederate Veterans argued that the Texas government’s refusal to issue specialty license plates including an image of the confederate flag violated the First Amendment. In 2008 a federal court affirmed [JURIST report] a district court’s grant of summary judgment to a Tennessee public high school in a lawsuit brought by three students who claimed the school’s ban on wearing the Confederate flag was unconstitutional.