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Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi Continue to Honor Robert E. Lee on Martin Luther King Day

While the nation honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, three states celebrate another man as well.

In Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, the slain civil rights leader shares a state holiday with Robert E. Lee, commanding officer of the Confederate Army.

The two figures seem to coexist in the very fabric of the Arkansas' capital city, where streets bear each of their names.

The large number of events celebrating King's life always outweigh the nearly silent response to the Confederate general, said state Sen. Tracy Steele. He said some hope to separate the overlapping honors for Lee and King.

"It certainly has been discussed. In past years, there's not been the type of community outcry or internal legislative support to get it done," said Steele, D-North Little Rock. "But it does seem the question comes up every year."

The pull of Civil War history, particularly the Confederacy, remains strong in Arkansas. Hats, T-shirts and pickup truck back windows still bear the "bars and stars" of the Confederate battle flag.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state's largest newspaper, typically runs a long editorial noting the general's birthday each year. King receives a similar tribute.

In its Lee tribute last year, the newspaper's editorial page read: "Despite his legend, the general could not command events — yet he remained in full command of his response to those events. Which is why not all the rains that have come and gone since his time have been able to wash out the single name that still sums up whatever is best in us and in this, our ever fecund, always forgiving South: Lee."

Lee, born 201 years ago, received the honor of having a county in eastern Arkansas named after him during Reconstruction. Another county in Arkansas is named for Lee's adversary, president and former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

The commemoration of Lee's birth dates to 1943, when Arkansas legislators declared it one of several "memorial days" the governor would commemorate by a proclamation. In 1947, legislators amended the law to name Jan. 19 a legal holiday in honor of the general.

In 1983, lawmakers voted to recognize King Day as an official state holiday, but required state employees to choose which two holidays they wanted off — either King's birthday on Jan. 15, Lee's birthday on Jan. 19 or the employee's birthday.

During the next regular legislative session in 1985, they voted to combine King and Lee's holiday commemorations for the third Monday in January. Employees got to keep their birthdays as a holiday.

When Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe was asked if he would attend a Lee event, Beebe said he "wasn't aware of any." He deferred when asked if the state should cede the day to King alone.

"The Legislature has to make the decision," Beebe told The Associated Press. "As a practical matter, virtually all the celebrations have been centered around MLK."

In 1997, a spokesman for then-Gov. Mike Huckabee said that both men should be honored. Huckabee, currently running for the Republican presidential nomination, in 1999 signed the bill that gave the Legislature a holiday on King Day.

"They're both heroes. Their birthdays come the same week and you know the government likes to have holidays at the start of the week," spokesman Rex Nelson said then.

But the president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said in 1997 that it seemed inappropriate to honor King on the same day.

"Dr. King worked hard to unify the country," Dale Charles said. "I wouldn't say General Lee would be in the same notion of Martin Luther King. He was a great general and all, but he didn't come close to what Martin Luther King was about."

Arkansas also has another combination commemoration. On President's Day — the third Monday in February — the state recognizes Daisy Gaston Bates, who mentored the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School under Army guard in 1957.