Arkansans Celebrate First Exclusive MLK Day

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - For the first time in decades, Arkansans exclusively celebrated Martin Luther King Day on Monday. 

State lawmakers voted to split the dual holiday of King and Confederate General Robert E. Lee during last year's legislative session.

Arkansas has honored Lee's memory since 1947 and King since 1983, when it became a federal holiday. The state combined the celebrations two years later under Gov. Bill Clinton.

It took more than 30 years to undo it. 

A diverse crowd commemorated Arkansas' inaugural MLK Day on the steps of the state capitol with the theme, "We've decided to be united."

Clergy and NAACP members alongside the governor remembered how they got there.

"It was not easy, but it was right," said Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "He is a hero to me. He is a hero to all of America." 

Inside the capitol where lawmakers ultimately split the dual holiday was quiet Monday, from the education committee room where the bill started to the Senate and House chambers where it passed and landed on Hutchinson's desk.

Not a soul in sight, except a couple from Washington state.

"Oh, this is gorgeous. Wow," said Debbie Mattson as she looked up at the capitol's ornate ceiling. "This is just beautiful."

"You look like a damn tourist," her husband said as he handed over her camera.

"I am!," Mattson said. "That's a young Bill." 

She laughed as she took her first picture of the day: a painting of Gov. Clinton on the wall.

"This just happened to be the day of Martin Luther King Day," Mattson said. "Whoops. Nothing was open."

Unlike every other state office and building, the capitol was open for five hours Monday, which was lucky for the Mattsons so they could check off another on their bucket list.

"There's so much more in the U.S. than having to run to Europe or any place else," Mattson said. "We have got so much history."

Little Rock now ranks 20th of their goal of all 50 U.S. capitols.

"We can remember things about each one of the capitols we've been to," Mattson said. 

This one will be easy, looking at history on a day that made history.

"This will be the day that it was MLK Day," Mattson said. "We were here."

Both lifelong Washington residents, the couple has only celebrated MLK Day as a stand-alone holiday, which they think is the way it should be.

"We believe in everyone is created equal," Mattson said. 

That's the message the state is sending as it exclusively celebrated King for the first of many years. 

Arkansas will now celebrate Lee on the second Saturday of October.

The new law also requires another first: a statewide policy of teaching children about the Civil War and coordinating instruction about civil rights leaders and MLK-specific teaching materials with the holiday that bears his name.

Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states that still commemorate both men on this day. 

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