Arkansas legislators rejected a proposal to change the meaning of a star on the state flag that honors the Confederacy

Posted at 5:27 PM, Feb 28, 2019

Lawmakers in Arkansas voted down a bill that would have removed Confederate symbolism from the state’s flag.

Arkansas’ flag features four prominent stars, with three lower stars representing Spain, France, and the United States — three nations to which the territory belonged at different points in its history. A single star above the word “Arkansas” on the flag symbolizes the Confederacy, per bills passed in 1923 and 1924.

A new bill would have enshrined that star as a symbol of the Native American tribes that occupied the land for centuries before Europeans arrived.

But Arkansas’ House State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee voted 8-5 to block the bill from advancing to the floor. Just one Republican joined the four Democrats in backing the measure, but there were seven abstentions.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charles Blake, tells CNN he’ll push again to get it to the floor during this year’s legislative session.

“Someone has to stand up and keep fighting,” he said.

Why Blake wants to update the flag

Blake, who is now the Democratic minority leader, joined the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2015. The first major piece of legislation he championed was a bill to remove a holiday commemorating the life of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, which was celebrated on the same day as Martin Luther King Day.

Blake said he pushed three times that year, unsuccessfully, to strip Lee from the holiday, but the effort caught the eye of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who ultimately backed a version of the proposal that was passed and signed into law in 2017.

Blake is hoping a similar playbook might take his latest proposal over the line this year. Like his 2015 effort, Blake says he still has two more chances this year to nudge the legislature to take up his bill.

“We have an ugly history,” Blake said, referencing America’s past with slavery, the Trail of Tears and the legacy of white supremacy. “I think we’re better than that. These fights take time. Change is uncomfortable.”

A number of states continue to incorporate Confederate symbolism into their flag.

Mississippi is the only state that currently uses the Confederate battle emblem in its official state flag. But several other state flags have references that can be traced to the Confederacy, including the state of Georgia, whose flag recalls the original “Stars and Bars” Confederate flag.

Blake said that since the flag bill failed Wednesday he has been “getting a lot of contacts of people saying they were embarrassed. Globally, we are embarrassed. We have the legacy of being a backwards-thinking state.”

He worried that businesses would be deterred from relocating to a state they might view as “not sensitive enough or not culturally competent enough.”

There’s opposition to the change

CNN has reached out to two representatives on the committee who opposed the bill.

Some lawmakers who opposed the measure felt it was part of a slippery slope leading to more efforts to erase portions of the state’s history. During the committee hearing, Rep. Bruce Bruce Cozart asked, “What’s next after this?” the Democrat-Gazette reported.

And another citizen opposed to the bill said his he had eight relatives who fought for the Confederacy and that he felt the effort to change the meaning of the flag was spearheaded by “revisionist organizations.”

But Blake told CNN he didn’t think changing the meaning of a star on the flag amounted to erasing history.

Our Confederate history is history. It should be in museums,” he said. “We can respect our history and be mindful of our present.”