WHEN THE GOVERNOR put pen to paper, it was as if the center of gravity in the governor’s conference room at the Arkansas State Capitol had subtly shifted to his wooden desk. Young and old, every person in the room, silent, listening, breath taken, appeared to lean toward him. The television lights were bright. The shutters of cameras clicked in anticipation. Screens of every size and model were held up to capture the moment.
Even if you were too far deep in the crowd to see the moment his pen left the paper and Senate Bill (SB) 519 became law, capping off what was, at the time, one of the more controversial subjects Arkansas had seen in recent memory, there would be no missing it, because in that moment, released from the stasis, the room burst into applause. Arkansas would no longer celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the same day as Robert E. Lee Day.
“To be quite honest,” the governor had said minutes before signing the bill, “I expected this debate to divide us. Instead, during the debate, we listened to each other and the conversation brought us together. This is an education bill in which the discussion educated each of us, and we learned that history needs to be viewed not just from our own lens but through the eyes and experiences of others.”
With this monumental step, an education bill which made the second Saturday in October a state memorial day for Robert E. Lee and allowed Martin Luther King Jr. his own day, news accounts would say, Arkansas had left behind Alabama and Mississippi as the lone celebrators of a joint holiday celebrating the Confederate general and the Civil Rights leader.
(Elsewhere, Florida continues to recognize Robert E. Lee’s birthday as a state holiday; in 2016, Georgia stopped recognizing the general’s birthday, though state workers still get the day off.) Given the events of the past few years, it felt like a step in the right direction, a day deserving of handshakes and fanfare.
It had been nearly two years since Dylann Roof murdered nine churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June 2015, and the Confederate flag taken down from the South Carolina state capitol. In that time, there had been a national debate over the meaning of Confederate iconography, prompting the removal of several statues and flags. It was still several months, however, before a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, would turn deadly, sparking a flurry of removals all across the country.
When signing the bill, the governor had used handsome black pens with his name lettered in gold along the side. Of these, one had ended up in the hands of Sen. Linda Chesterfield, the former head of the Legislative Black Caucus. After everything came to a close, she was approached by a man with wild blond hair. He had not been among the people whom the governor had thanked for their support—the bills’ sponsors, the Legislative Black Caucus, the legislators whose words had inspired others to vote for its passage, the Martin Luther King Commission. But yet, in that moment, Chesterfield handed him the pen she’d just received from the governor.
She told him that he deserved it.
AT ONE MINUTE past 11 o’clock, a man with pale skin, his blond hair rendered nearly platinum under the fluorescent lights, took a seat at the microphone. “My name is Kelly Duda, like in the song ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’—it’s a good Southern song,” he said. “I’m here—for the bill. I’m a proponent, an early proponent for this legislative action.”
For just over an hour, the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs had been hearing testimony from its members and members of the public who had signed up to speak for or against the bill, House Bill (HB) 1113. It was one of two bills submitted that year with the same aim—to separate the holidays, setting aside a separate memorial day for Robert E. Lee—and the first time that such an attempt had been made since Rep. Bill Walker had made an unsuccessful go of it in 1989. With eight members of the public speaking against the proposed legislation, their moods ranging from reasoned to outraged, the odds didn’t seem particularly good. Kelly was the first to speak for it.
“I’m a Southerner,” he went on to say in an accent that, to the untrained ear, did not sound particularly Southern. “I’m a proud Southerner, I’m from Arkansas, was raised in the South. I’m hearing comments about diversity and separate but equal. And quite frankly, it’s blowing my mind.”
Over the course of the next three minutes allotted to him, he told the committee members that the joint holiday was a jeer to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the South was playing the victim card, that the signs posted each year on the Capitol grounds—“Closed … for the observed birthdays of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee”—cast the state in a negative light.
The argument was not unlike the guest editorial he’d written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which had appeared on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just a week and a half before. In the article, entitled “A Wrong Message,” he’d written, “To attach this to a federal holiday that remembers the accomplishments of a black American who gave up his life for civil rights and equality is simply mind-boggling. One holiday honors a uniter; the other a divider.”
“I’m not trying to tell you that you can’t appreciate Robert E. Lee and his contribution—I think there’s a good compromise here,” he said in closing, referencing an amended version of the bill, which had provided for a memorial day to be set aside for Robert E. Lee. “You still have that. You still have history. This is not about attacking Southern history. This is about moving forward.”
Sitting two rows behind him were many of those who’d come to speak against the bill. One older gentleman, white and vaguely academic looking, seemed especially troubled. His hands were quaking as he put on his glasses, groped for a pen from inside his jacket and then occupied himself with the contents of a yellow folder, his face turning deeper shades of crimson and purple. When called upon to speak, he introduced himself as Robert Edwards.
Although he didn’t say as much that morning—the only identifying information he gave upon sitting down to the microphone was his name and the fact he was from Bryant—he was the Arkansas division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and would become a prominent voice in media reports when the matter was again taken up in 2017. He ended his three minutes by telling Rep. Nate Bell, the committee chair and the bill’s sponsor, “Sir, I think your bill is just ass-absurd,” prompting an applause from the crowd.
After hearing from the executive director of the ACLU’s Arkansas chapter (the only other person to speak in favor of the bill), and the co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Charles Blake of Little Rock, Rep. Bell called it to a vote.
“Chair rules the nays have it,” Bell said, drawing another round of applause. “With that, with there being no further business to come before this committee today, we stand adjourned.”
REALLY, THAT COULD have been it. But passion is a contagious thing. It is a communicable thing. It can make you dogged, it can make you nuts and it can instill in your heart the seeds of something that won’t let go—and which over time can bind you to it irrevocably. And, it has to be said, Kelly Duda is a passionate man. Those familiar with his name, and no doubt there are many, are probably well aware of this fact. They are probably also well aware that Kelly has no qualms about making that passion known, has chased more than a few causes to the point of exhaustion, and, in the process, has burned more than his fair share of bridges.
Although he was born here—the son of a conservative Canadian-born Yankee airman stationed in Little Rock during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a mother who was, as Kelly describes her, “a bit of a wayfarer”—he was raised all over the South. It was only in the ’90s, when he came back to Arkansas after a long peripatetic existence, that Kelly finally settled into something like home. He met a woman. They had a daughter. They divorced. But then he stayed, determined to give his daughter a more stable home than the one he’d had himself.
In the years that followed, he worked primarily as a filmmaker, finding no shortage of causes to be passionate about. There was, for example, the matter of the West Memphis Three, for whom he was a longtime supporter and advocate. Then there was his film, Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, which linked tainted blood collected in Arkansas prisons to recipients around the globe and traced its roots up the political food chain. And with each, for one reason or another, there were more than a few connections and social moorings cut away as a result.
I know this because, had I recorded all of the phone calls I received and tallied the Facebook messages linking to stories about the fall of Confederate iconography, those missives would represent a sizable canon and, in their own way, speak to why there are some who’ve allowed their connections with him to go slack. This all might seem like something of a nonsequitur, but it’s helpful to understand this passion on the front end—if only to understand the extent to which Kelly was willing, and aware, of the part that he needed to play in all of this.
I have to admit that I did not know any of this when I reached out to him in October 2016, telling him that I had seen the video of the committee meeting, and immediately received a phone call from him. He told me then, and in a subsequent email, that he had just spoken before the Little Rock Board of Directors and submitted a sample proposal for the city to “unrecognize Robert E. Lee Day” in the hopes of the starting that Sisyphean task of nudging the boulder, if only a little bit.
“THIS ROOM IS always so hot,” Kelly said as a gust of air came through the large second-story room at Little Rock’s City Hall. “Might just be me,” he said after considering this for a moment. “I’m breathing my own hot air all the time.”
It had been nearly two years since he’d spoken at the committee hearing, and we were sitting waiting for Little Rock’s Board of Directors meeting to get underway. The occasion was that, after weeks of delays, the Board of Directors, to the extent it was able, would be taking up the matter of the separation of the holidays: If the resolution in question passed, it would ask the Little Rock delegation to the Arkansas General Assembly to sponsor legislation that would split the holidays.
Although that message would have no actual bearings on the events of the coming months, there was hope that the resolution, if it were to pass, would carry some weight coming from the directors and the mayor. Although there was every reason to be confident the directors would lend their support, there was still a feeling of tension in the room. This hadn’t been helped when, a few minutes before, Ken Richardson, one of the city directors, had walked by where Kelly was sitting and given him what seemed to be a thumbs down.
“I don’t know what the hell that meant,” Kelly said. He appeared to mull this over, resting his head in his hands, pressing his thumbs against his lower lip. When he noticed that I was watching him, he said that, as a little boy, he used to chew his nails when he was nervous. “It’s because I wasn’t breastfed,” he joked.
As the mayor entered the chamber and the meeting was about to get underway, Kelly took a photo and posted it to Facebook, tapping out a caption: “At City Hall before the board votes on the REL DAY/MLK DAY resolution that I proposed. STAY TUNED.”
In a way, the events of that evening seemed to symbolize the broader tension surrounding the holiday—how few were anxious to pick up the torch of what seemed to be a fairly volatile political football, both on the local and the national stage. Just a few weeks before, news had broken via a batch of emails leaked from WikiLeaks that the Clinton campaign, back in June 2015, had been trying to decide how best to address the issue.
Perhaps the exchange that best represented the hesitancy, however, had come from an email that Kelly had gotten nearly six years before when he’d asked then-State Rep. Kathy Webb, who was later elected to the Little Rock City Board in 2014, about the prospect of separating the holidays. In her response, she wrote, “I visited with a few folks to see if there is any support for this. As you know, the climate is very difficult. Long story short: most don’t think this battle at this time would win OR would help make an effective statement. Would be happy to visit further about it, sometimes making a statement is important. But one has to pick and choose one’s fights.”
For that reason, it wasn’t especially surprising when the city, in effect, ripped the Band-Aid off.
At 6:47 p.m., the mayor announced they’d be addressing the resolution.
By 6:48 p.m., by a vote of 8 to 1, the resolution had passed and the city gone on to other business.
The three cameramen near the door turned to their phones, and then packed up their things. The people who’d come out for the event gradually stood and took their leave. It all felt a little anticlimactic, a little underwhelming. A few minutes later, I met Kelly in the hall outside the room. Along with Rizelle Aaron, president of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, he’d spoken to one of the television stations. After he’d finished, we met in the hall just outside the room.
“Here’s the meat of it, and let’s get to the point,” Kelly said, standing to one side as people left the room. “At the time this holiday was created in the late ’40s, what was going on is you had the Dixiecrats—these are the Southern Democrats who had aligned with the segregationists—OK—and together, they fought efforts to integrate, alright? And that was when you saw the Confederate flag pop up, after all this time after the Civil War. That’s when you saw the symbols and the emblems. Go look it up. It’s there. It’s history. OK? …”
Over the course of the next 45 minutes, I listened as Kelly spoke his mind. Through the door, you could see the city directors talking through a proposed development and the neighbors who’d shown up to speak against it. Over time, there were fewer and fewer people walking by. The elevator ceased to ding. By the time we finally left and Kelly had said what he wanted to say, it was night.
JUST BEFORE NOON, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of this past year, the second floor of the marble rotunda was steadily being filled with molded plastic chairs. The festivities, which had originally been slated to be held on the steps of the Capitol building, had been moved inside owing to the uncertain state of the weather. A lectern was dragged creakily into place. People were taking their seats. Looking down from the second floor to the first, you could see at least one mother tugging a choir robe over the head of a little boy, simultaneously hustling him toward a staircase somewhere out of view.
Although many such events had been held in the past, there was still no doubt that the event was politically charged. Just two weeks before, not far from where the chairs had been arranged, the governor had made his intentions known in a press conference: Not only would the separation of the holidays be one of his key legislative priorities, as his office had announced on Dec. 20, he made it clear that he himself, despite the inherent challenge, would be making a strong case for the bill: “I recognize this is not easy. I recognize this is an uphill battle. But I believe it is the right thing to do for our state. And that’s the reason I’m asking for that support.”
Sitting beside me in a purple sweater with a multicolored umbrella was Kelly Duda. On the chair between us was a copy of that day’s newspaper, in which an editorial that he’d written had appeared. Much like the one that had run two years before to the day, this one, entitled “On the Right Side,” offered a look at some history for those who claimed “that eliminating the state holiday Robert E. Lee Day is an attempt to ‘change history.’”
In it, he noted that the Robert E. Lee holiday, established in Arkansas in 1947, had come at a time when the Confederacy was making a “big comeback,” and that under Gov. Ben Laney, “Lee Day was established as a state holiday as part of this political agenda to reinforce white supremacy.” Those holdovers from Laney’s time and the Jim Crow South weren’t just limited to holidays, however. As the Southern Poverty Law Center documented in its April 2016 report “Whose Heritage: Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” there are at least 1,503 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces—57 of which can be found in Arkansas. After addressing some other points—how the Confederate flag wasn’t present at Lee’s funeral, nor was the general buried in uniform—in closing, Kelly wrote, “It’s time for the state of Arkansas to be on the right side of history.”
That afternoon, it wasn’t difficult to figure out that most had been following the news about the holiday. Officials from all sectors of public life—State Sen. Joyce Elliott; Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb; Dale Charles, then president of the Little Rock NAACP; Mayor Mark Stodola, among many others—spoke about the need to separate the holidays. The halls of the Arkansas state capitol are enormous, prone to echo, even more so when there are few bodies to absorb the sound. But even then, though it was often difficult to catch what the speakers had to say word for word, their messages were clear.
IT IS A FINE thing to have a clean narrative, one that ends, as all good stories do, with a sense of finality, the ends tied tight, wrapped together, adhering to the notions that you’ve approached it with. And in a sense, this story is no different. As the weeks and months slipped by, SB519 passed through all the proper channels, from committee to the Senate to the House to the governor’s desk, undeterred by the challenges that rose up before it, of which there were many. It had a good ending.
There is something to be said, however, about attention. When you turn your attention to a single narrative for so long, everything outside that main point of focus goes fuzzy. Tunnel vision sets in. You lose sight of the broader picture. You miss the point. And to say that is where the story ends would be the equivalent of describing the tip of an iceberg without bothering to mention that, just below the waves, there was so much more worth noting and seeking to understand.
On the day that bill SB519 was scheduled to go before the Senate, there was discussion on another bill: House Joint Resolution 1016, an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution that would require voters to “present valid photographic identification when voting in person or when casting an absentee ballot.”
In the Senate, there were two senators who spoke against it: Sens. Linda Chesterfield and Joyce Elliott. Chesterfield focused on those who would be voting absentee, namely people living in nursing homes, who would be reluctant to send in their photo IDs in order to vote. Elliott spoke more bluntly, saying, “This is not a problem, and the one thing we want to do, we should be doing, is making sure it’s easier, and less onerous, for people to vote. … If in your heart of hearts, you know this to be a problem, then I think you should vote for it. But if you can’t sit in your seat, and lean over to the next person, or tell me to my face, what the problem is, you need to vote against this.”
After the bill was passed without a hitch, I watched with Kelly from the second-floor gallery as Chesterfield removed her glasses and began rifling through her papers for a moment. An older gentleman sitting behind us in the gallery said, “Bad, bad, bad, bad.” Kelly said, “Yep.”
When it came time for SB519 to go to the floor, the bill’s sponsor, David Wallace, a white soft-spoken senator from Mississippi County, got up before the assembly and explained the bill’s merits, saying it was a day that needs to stand alone. He ended by telling his fellow Senators: “We’re better than that. We can do better than that. And with that, I ask for your vote.”
When the bill passed 24-0 (11 legislators were present but opted not to vote), the galleries erupted in applause immediately following the vote, and there were more than a few “Praise God”s spoken aloud just behind us. Having passed the Senate, the bill would go on to the House, where it would be heard two weeks later, passing with 66 yeas, 11 nays and five voting present, before landing on the governor’s desk.
“TODAY, THE GOVERNMENT of Arkansas, in that senate chamber …” Kelly paused. “…Took an important step. In recognizing the value of African Americans in this country. And in this state. As fully human beings.”
We were standing in the main hall of the Capitol building, just outside the doors of the Senate. He’d just finished a long statement about the day’s events. I asked him how felt about the fact that, on the day the bill to separate the holidays passed out of the senate, a bill mandating stricter ID laws had also been advanced, and would eventually be signed.
“That’s what I was getting back to,” he said. “We have the same Supreme Court that’s been dismantling the voting rights act. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how they part and parceled this: We’ll take away this, but we’ll give them that. … But ask any black person, any African American in this country, and they’re used to it: For every step of progress, they know they’re going to get hit. They always get dinged. Every time they move forward, they get dinged. …
“Hey Reggie!” he called out, waving to Reginald Ford, vice president of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP, whom we’d been chatting with a few minutes before. “come here for a second when you … I need you.” Turning back to me, he said, “Don’t hear it from me.”
As Reginald, who’d been speaking with a woman across the way, came back over with a sheet of paper in his hand, Kelly said, “I said to him, we were talking about … I made a statement that, more than a hundred years ago, today, was the infamous Dred Scott decision in which blacks were told in this country, whether free or slave, they were not citizens. Over 50 years ago …”
“Right, right. You’re excited,” he said, putting a hand on Kelly’s shoulder. “Calm down.”
After giving a summary of the conversation, Kelly then turned to Reginald and said. “As a black American, when you’ve seen progress, are you not already pre-programmed to know you’re going to get dinged?”
“Well, that’s kind of what we were talking about: It’s expected. … The voting rights thing? It’s not surprising. I mean, no proof to it, no evidence, but it allows … So, we get one thing. And the question is, which one is more substantive? Honestly. Remember, I was telling you, we’ll get a little something, yeah, we’ll probably get MLK …”
“Maybe. But what substance is under there?” Reginald said. “What programs, what policies? Nothing.”
“It’s a symbol.”
“It’s a symbol. So, it shows where it’s really at. … But the sad thing is we’ll clap and all that, but we really haven’t done a whole lot.”
IF THIS WERE a different story, I’d tell you that there are many ways to change the world, and not all of them happen on the floor of the capitol. I’d tell you that, two weeks before the governor signed into law the bill that would separate the holidays for all Arkansans, I was sitting in a Pulaski County courtroom with Reginald Ford. He was dressed well, not unlike the handful of lawyers who were in the room. Beside him, there was a young man, G., wearing baggy acid-washed jeans, a large checked shirt, a neck tattoo arcing above his collar. On his lap, Reginald held a folder full of documents, forms documenting the young man’s community service, his newfound employment at a fast-food restaurant, everything that they would need in order to show the judge that G. had gotten to be on the right path.
They’d known each other just three weeks.
They’d met by chance one day as Reginald was looking after one of the properties that he rents. G. was 20 years old, homeless. They’d gotten to talking and the young man mentioned he had a court date coming up—and then asked whether Reginald be open to going with him. Although he has no legal background, Reginald agreed to go along. When G. stood before the judge, Reginald stood with him and told the judge the Jacksonville NAACP has a mentorship program and that he would be willing to take G. under his wing. The judge agreed to this, but told them that they’ll need to be back in 30 days to give an update.
In that time, Reginald had been a source of support. Upon learning that the G. had no other ID than the card he’d gotten from the Pulaski County prison system—no birth certificate, no social security card—he’d helped him get one. When they went to get G. a job, Reginald went in first and personally vouched for him. He got him a 10-speed to bike to ride to work and a flip phone (G. told him that no one has a flip phone anymore; Reginald responded that he wasn’t in a position to be asking for something nicer).
At 10:12 a.m., the judge called G.’s name. Reginald stood with him.
“Looks like Mr. [G.] has taken care of what he owed,” the judge said, after reviewing his file. “I hope you stay on this path you’re on. It’s a good path to be on. … We hear from a lot of people who don’t have that kind of support.”
If this were a different story, I’d tell you that it was somewhere around this moment, and in the months that followed, that I realized how much I’d missed. Sitting in that courtroom, which felt worlds away from the Capitol, I thought back on what I’d seen—and what I hadn’t. By focusing so much on the goings-on at the Capitol, I’d missed so much of what the holiday truly stands for—what Dr. King stood for. More importantly, I’d neglected to realize that, as a white male, even in writing this story, there was a measure of unexamined privilege (to say nothing, of course, about the fact that sponsor and co-sponsor of the bill, the governor who signed it, the subject of this piece were all white as well).
Ultimately, though, I suppose there’s no difference between this story and the hypothetical one.
Because, really, it’s all the same story.
A FEW WEEKS before we went to press on this issue, my editor posed the question: That pen Kelly had gotten from Sen. Chesterfield—did he feel that he deserved it? When I called him up, he was feeling a little under the weather. He’d just gotten home from Italy, where he’d been testifying about the tainted blood that had been sent to that country. For the better part of 25 minutes, he told me a story as only Kelly can—how he’d had his phone stolen, confronted a supposedly corrupt prosecutor and nearly gotten himself thrown in jail.
“Anyway, I know that’s not what you called about,” he said.
When asked about the matter of the pen—whether he deserved it—he said: “Absolutely. I had been told beforehand that, you know, the politicians always want to take all the credit. And if you want something done, you have to allow them to be able to do that. The irony is, do you want credit or do you want to accomplish something? Do you want to get it done? So, absolutely, I feel like I deserved that pen.”
“It had to happen,” he went on to say. “I knew it would happen. I didn’t know when. It took people like me to call it out. I knew I was on the side of right. That’s what protects me, and that’s what motivates me. It is its own reward.”
As we spoke, I couldn’t help but think back to the last interview we’d had before he left for California, where he’d moved a few months before. We’d driven out to Scott on the pretense of him showing me where he’d grown up, so that I could get a better sense of where he was from. After we’d gotten back to Little Rock, he’d pulled his SUV in front of the Democrat-Gazette building and he’d told me that he was glad that he would no longer have to play the part of the agitator, the soap-box-stander—or, as he put it: “I don’t have to be Kelly Duda.”
The thing with Kelly is, for all his grandstanding, he is not a man fond of the dais. He is a man who, at heart, I think, would rather stand on the sidelines than step before the microphone and explain that his name is Kelly Duda, you know, just like the song. He knows the position he’s in, the skin he has to inhabit—though at times he seems quite surprised to have found himself there, zipped up in this Kelly Duda suit, full of ire, channeling passion.
But he also knows that there’s something to be said about the reverberations of words that we put out there. It can be tough to say how deeply felt those are. But there’s no denying where we are right now, and how much has changed. And come January, we won’t be seeing signs that have Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Robert E. Lee Day on the same piece of paper.
The day we spoke in December, Kelly, as he’s wont to do, said a lot of things. However, there is something in particular that stuck with me: Paraphrasing Bobby Kennedy, he said, “Each of us can be a tiny ripple of hope. Each of us can make something happen in society. It took a lot of people. It took chain reactions. I was an agitator. … My job was to make it so. Make it happen. Tiny ripples. And together, combine and cascade and take down the mightiest walls of oppression.”