Unlikely ‘heroes’ divided Lee/MLK holidays for state
Finally, in the emotional, gut-wrenching debate over separating the holidays Dr. Martin Luther King and CSA General Robert E. Lee, a true statesman has emerged.
And that statesman was one state Rep. George Billy McGill, D-Fort Smith.
McGill, after some emotional pros and cons for the measure, calmly stepped down to the well of the House and led the Arkansas House in a historic and climatic speech straight from his heart and closed forever the issue of this once combined holiday.
McGill is known as a “back bencher,” one of those men in the Legislature who quietly sit on the rear rows of the chamber and keep out of the backand-forth of those members who like to stroll down front and comment on bill after bill after bill.
He rarely, if ever, according to his colleagues, goes to the well.
I, for one, am glad he made the infrequent stroll to the front of the chamber last week.
And watching the debate on live streaming from a computer was well worth the time spent and the historical ramifications his speech made.
Republican State Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, who represents western Washington and Crawford counties, said only good things about McGill, when asked.
“George McGill doesn’t go to the well of the House very often, but when he does, we listen. Rep. McGill is soft spoken, well mannered, and unfailingly kind. He treats everyone with dignity and respect. He’s a true gentleman who is known for his integrity. I’m proud to serve with him.”
McGill talked about “setting aside the painful emotions (of this bill) for a moment,” as he settled down behind the podium. In front of his 99 other colleagues, he firmly took the issue and steered the chamber’s attention towards a solution.
He began by correctly thanking the Speaker for the opportunity to speak.
McGill told a few lighthearted tributes of humor on himself and lauded praise upon others in the chamber. But then, in a true statesman-like-manner, he got down to business.
He began an intriguing tale of his great-greatgreat-grandfather, a George McGill, who left the servitude of slavery in Mississippi to fight for the Union Army in the waning day of the Civil War.
McGill said he has often thought about his ancestor, but legislator McGill “does not know the ancestor’s history and thusly does not share the pain” of history in the 1860s.
He then told of some personal reflections, fast-forwarding to a youthful George B. McGill of Fort Smith, who was a student at the University of Arkansas, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and this nation was in racial turmoil. That pain he knows and knows well.
In a lighthearted moment, McGill praised his former hair style: “I had an big Afro, I mean a big one, and it was good looking,” he said to polite laughter around the Chamber.
“Oh, I wore the dashikis and I gave the (raised clenched fist) the Power sign,” McGill said.
But he does not tell the tales of being mistreated at the UA to his grandson. “It’s just too painful. I don’t carry that hate and luggage around today.”
McGill said he has jettisoned that hurt and pain and today the “UA campus is one of my favorite places to visit.”
He closed by saying the splitting of the holidays would give educators an opportunity, a frame work, to educate future generations on what went on – good and bad – during these historic events.
“What we are doing is creating some space to educate our children,” McGill said.
He praised Gov. Hutchinson for his support of the bill and for young state Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers) who championed the bill in his first session in the House.
As McGill urged members to vote for the bill, he quickly left the well, headed for his back-bench seat. No one else spoke. A true statesman had spoken. The bill passed.
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