An Arkansas House committee failed to pass a bill April 9 that would have made it illegal to alter or remove any public monument, including monuments related to the Civil War.
The bill, sponsored by District 15 Sen. Mark Johnson (R), would have protected monuments such as the statue in Bentonville that was dedicated to Bentonville Confederate soldiers in 1908 by the James H. Berry Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Petitions to relocate the monument circulated in 2017 by groups such as Ozark Indivisible, a volunteer group of activists living in Northwest Arkansas that focus on protecting the individual rights of people under the President Donald Trump administration, according to their Facebook page.
Ozark Indivisible started the petition after the death of a protester at a rally to remove a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ozark Indivisible co-founder Kim Benyr said.
Benyr thinks that the bill could resurface after being rewritten, she said. Benyr disagrees with the bill, which would prevent local government officials from moving monuments, she said.
“The bill will just add more red tape to making any progress,” Benyr said about groups, like Ozark Indivisible, attempting to remove or relocate monuments.
She does not think that the bill would have affected many other NWA monuments, Benyr said.
“There is not really a campaign to remove monuments that are in reference to other historical figures,” Benyr said. “The Bentonville statue is a generic Confederate soldier.”
Sophomore Billy Cook, who is majoring in history and political science, thinks the bill was an effort to protect specific monuments, he said.
“Personally, I think that this is just a veiled attempt to protect Confederate monuments,” Cook said. “I’m sure they included in the text that this is to protect all monuments, but when you look at the recent controversies across America, you see that a lot of politicians are making similar bills in other states.”
Cook thinks that monuments, such as Confederate ones, would better serve the public in places like museums, schools or other facilities where they can be used for educational purposes, he said.
“They should be used as educational tools, such as the Holocaust museums in Germany,” Cook said. “You don’t see them flying swastikas, or things like that in other countries that are reasonably offensive.”
Johnson plans to work on the bill during the interim to clean it up and to try and find something that everyone can agree on, he said.
The History Commission would have been responsible for granting waivers to cities and counties looking to move monuments. One of the complaints about the bill was that the History Commission only meets four times a year, Johnson said.
“The attorney that represents the municipal league agreed to help me in the interim to create something that would accomplish what we are trying to do, and also not put burdens on cities,” Johnson said. “I worry about cities that are trying to make political statements and tear down historic monuments. I don’t think we have a lot of that, but I think we can work together and create legislation that satisfies their concerns and accomplish what we want to do.”
The Arkansas State Society chapter of the United States Daughters of 1812 is a supporter of the bill and what it would mean for monuments in Arkansas, said former society president Sharon Wyatt.
The United States Daughters of 1812 is an organization founded in 1892 that works at “promoting patriotism, preserving and increasing knowledge of the history of the American people by the preservation of documents and relics,” according to their website.
“We are for it because we feel that so much is happening right now and it seems like people are wanting to change history,” Wyatt said. “Our monuments are very important to us, and they teach us about history.
The Arkansas State Society recently added 634 names to their War of 1812 Memorial Fountain at the Arkansas State Capitol, Wyatt said. News names were found with the help of new information and genealogy websites.
“We see some monuments being abused, and the purpose of them gets twisted,” Wyatt said. “We’re afraid next it could be 1812 monuments. We are passionate about them and we want to protect the monuments, so that people can walk by and read them and learn about them, the good, the bad and the ugly. It is our history.”