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Lee Stands In Bid To End Arkansas's Dual Lee/MLK Holiday, Rep. Called "Colored"

Rep. Nate Bell in a committee hearing during the 2015 regular session of the Arkansas Legislature.
Jacob Kauffman

A second attempt in the Arkansas Legislature to decouple the joint state holiday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. failed in the House State Agencies Committee Wednesday after a tense hearing.

“The people who support this bill have been somewhat silent. There is a lot of intimidation up there," said the bill's sponsor Representative Nate Bell.

Rep. Bell (R-Mena) walked into an uphill battle in his effort to let Martin Luther King Day stand alone, apart from the legacy of the Confederacy. Bell tried and failed late last month and many of the same voices in opposition made the trek back to the Capitol to testify, unafraid. Including John Crain from Mountain Home.

“I served as a judge, a prosecuting attorney for five counties for four years,” said Crain. Also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Crain spoke against the legislation, “this bill goes against my ancestry.”

Crain was joined by others of like-mind, such as B. Leon Smith of Hot Springs.

“We should dismiss this bill to the mountain of bovine effluvium where it truly belongs,” said Smith.

But unlike last month, members of the public at times had trouble saying much of anything without acting-Chair Richard Womack attempting to steer the conversation. That included the head of the state’s Martin Luther King Commission, Phil Kaplan. Who I should also point out has raised funds for KUAR.

KAPLAN: “Dr. King’s [interrupted]...” WOMACK: “Well, I’m having trouble seeing how it relates directly, in all honesty.” KAPLAN: “This is the statement of the Martin Luther King commission. The commission is here to say we want this celebration alone for Dr. King, not together.” WOMACK: “That’s it. Great, thank you, thank you.” KAPLAN: “Oh.”

However, Representative Bell was provided time both to open and close for his bill.

“Help me remove what is being used as a tool to create racial division. You heard some comments today from people who told you they weren’t racist who then used racial slurs,” said Bell.

Bell was referring to a statement made earlier by the former judge from Mountain Home. Here, John Crain responds to a question by Representative John Walker; Representative Womack presided over the exchange:

CRAIN: “I’m proud to call my colored brothers, my brothers.” WOMACK: “Thank you, thank you for your testimony.” WALKER: “Point of, [interrupted] point of personal privilege [interrupted].” WOMACK: “Are there any other questions by [interrupted].” WALKER: “Point of personal privilege.” WOMACK: “Uh, hang on just a…” WALKER: “Point of personal privilege.” WOMACK: “Are there any other questions by committee members for this witness?” WALKER: “Well, this is a point of personal privilege.”

Walker was not pleased by Crain’s choice of words. Crain, responded to Walker as if he thought “brother” and not “colored” was the problem with his language.

WALKER: “Having referenced to persons of my race as a ‘colored brother’ is a relic of slavery.” CRAIN: “Well I’m sorry.” WALKER: “And it’s insulting.” CRAIN: “Well, I’m sorry. I apologize. I call everybody my brother, I don’t care what race they are.”

Speaking afterward, Representative Womack, the Chair from Arkadelphia, said he didn’t hear anything inappropriate.

“I’m not sure what he [Walker] heard that was a racial slur honestly. I didn’t see any mal intent there at all,” said Womack.

Womack’s opinion may be to the chagrin of the man likely to try again, with similar legislation, Representative Fred Love of Little Rock.

“The cultural competent term is either ‘African-American’ or ‘black.’ To call somebody ‘colored’ is very offensive. It’s liken to calling an African-American man a ‘boy,’" said Love.

Love may have an even tougher time than Bell securing votes in the majority Republican committee that voted down the bill 7 to 10 on a roll call. Love is a Democrat from an urban, mostly black district. Bell is a Republican from the small, mostly white town of Mena on the outskirts of the Ouachita National Forest in west Arkansas. And unlike Bell, Love does not hold Lee in particularly high-esteem; and his bill doesn’t move the Lee observance to a shared day with another Confederate General, Arkansan Patrick Cleburne.

“There are just some things that don’t need to be celebrated. Robert E. Lee…I’m not going to disparage him and say that he was bad but what he ended up fighting for was not the America that we have today. To continue to celebrate him is just bringing up that bad past,” said Love.

Love said he knows the path to success may be unlikely but it’s worth another try.

“I will probably present the bill as it is and make the committee vote it down,” said Love. “I think that it’s important.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Rep. Richard Womack (R-Arkadelphia) as Steve Womack.

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