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By Steve Barnes

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) – U.S. civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil War Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee will share a common holiday on Monday in three southern states, but perhaps for the final time in one of them, Arkansas.

The state’s Republican governor is pushing to separate the joint celebration after critics said it is an insult for the man who fought to end racial segregation to share a day with a man who fought to preserve slavery.

“They need to be distinguished and separate,” Governor Asa Hutchinson told a news conference this month about the remembrances.

Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama for years have observed a joint holiday for King and Lee, whose birthdays are just four days apart.

Arkansas in the 1940s set up a day in mid-January to honor Lee and created a holiday for King in 1983. Two years after that, it combined the two for a joint day marked on the third Monday in January.

In January 2015, Arkansas lawmakers defeated a bill that would have reserved the January date for King and established a memorial day, although not a holiday, for Lee in November.

Racial sensitivity has been heightened across the South following the murders of nine black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina church in June 2015 by a suspected gunman who is a white supremacist and adorned his social media website with Confederate regalia. 

The shooting caused many Southern states to re-examine symbols of the Confederacy.

Arkansas State Representative Fred Love, a Democrat who led the unsuccessful campaign in 2015 to separate the joint holiday, said passing the measure would be a winner in terms of race relations.

“It would show how far we’ve come,” he said.

For many in Arkansas, Lee remains a revered figure who fought with dignity for the South.

Representative Jeff Wardlaw, a Democrat who voted against Love’s bill, said his conservative constituents are concerned Lee would be officially disregarded.

“I’m the kind of guy who does what his constituents tell him they want, and last year they indicated they didn’t want a change,” Wardlaw said.

Hutchinson wants lawmakers to pass legislation that gives King a day of his own when they meet for a regular session in the Republican-dominated statehouse

“It’s important that that day be distinguished and separate and focused on the civil rights struggle and what he personally did in that effort,” Hutchinson said.

(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Paul Simao)

Photo: Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (C) chats after a news conference in Havana, Cuba September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

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