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Arkansas Ends Robert E. Lee-Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas' governor signed legislation Tuesday ending the state's practice of commemorating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the same holiday as slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., leaving only two states remaining that honor the two men on the same day.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson championed the bill, which also expands what is taught in schools about civil rights and the Civil War, saying it would unify the state and improve its image. His signature comes two years after similar efforts repeatedly failed before a legislative panel, with critics saying it belittles the state's Confederate heritage.

Image: Asa Hutchinson
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks in the governor's conference room inside the state Capitol in Little Rock, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, before signing a bill moving the state's Robert E. Lee holiday to October. Kelly P. Kissel / AP

"I expected this debate would divide us, but instead during the debate we listened to each other and the conversation brought us together," Hutchinson said before signing the measure into law. "This is an education bill in which the discussion educated each of us, and we learned that history needs to be viewed not just from our own lens, but through the eyes and experiences of others."

Here are some details about the new law and background about the original dual-holiday:

What does the law do?

The new law will remove Lee from the state holiday that honors King on the third Monday in January. The Civil War general will instead will be honored with a memorial day, not a state holiday, on the second Saturday in October that will be marked with a gubernatorial proclamation.

Related: Mississippi City Officially Declares Third Monday of January MLK Jr. Day

The law also requires the Arkansas Department of Education to expand what's taught in classrooms about the Civil War and civil rights, including more of an emphasis on civil rights leaders such as King, as well as more about civilian and military leadership during the Civil War.

How long has Arkansas had the dual holiday?

Both Lee and King were born in January. Arkansas has had a holiday in honor of Lee since 1947, and one for King since 1983.

Starting in 1983, state agencies required employees to choose which of the holidays they wanted off: King's birthday on Jan. 15, Lee's birthday on Jan. 19 or the employee's birthday. Two years later, the Legislature voted to combine holidays.

Related: Biloxi, Mississippi, Refers to 'Great Americans Day' Instead of MLK Day

An effort to remove Lee from the holiday was spurred in 2015 by social media posts showing the notices placed on state buildings about the dual holiday, but the legislation repeatedly failed before a House committee.

Why did it pass this time?

Hutchinson early last year announced he would push for an end to the dual holiday and later made it part of his legislative package for this year's session. He even took the unusual step of testifying directly in front of the Senate and House committees in favor of the legislation.

Lee
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee poses in his uniform during the Civil War. AP

The provision on civil rights and Civil War history also helped ensure the measure would go before the House and Senate education committees, rather than the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee where it failed two years ago.

What's the argument for ending the dual holiday?

Opponents of the dual holiday, including the Arkansas NAACP and the state's Legislative Black Caucus, said honoring King on the same day as an icon of the Confederacy was divisive.

They said it was a reminder of the horrors of slavery for Arkansas' African-American residents. Hutchinson has also said the same-day holiday forced a "false choice" between the two men and hurt Arkansas' image.

What was the argument for keeping it?

Supporters of the dual holiday have questioned the need for removing Lee, comparing it to removing Confederate monuments.

Officials with the state's Sons of Confederate Veterans division argued that commemorating the two men on the same day honors all of the state's history. They also said marking Lee with a memorial day rather than a state holiday belittles Arkansas' Confederate heritage.

What does this mean for other states?

Alabama and Mississippi are now the only states that have joint Lee-King state holidays. It's unclear whether Arkansas' move will advance efforts to end the dual holidays in those states.

A proposal is pending in the Alabama Legislature to end the state's joint holiday in January and move the commemoration of Lee's birthday to Confederate Memorial Day, which Alabama celebrates as a state holiday in April. The measure has yet to clear a legislative committee.

No bills to end the dual holiday were filed in Mississippi this year.