The South Will Be Celebrated Again!

Historical revisionists urge Lege to protect the Confederacy

Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of the shooting of President Abraham Lincoln. How did Texas celebrate that terrible day? By having a bunch of Confederate revisionists tell lawmakers how great Johnny Reb really was.

Yesterday's meeting of the House Committee on Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, discussing Confederate Heroes Day

It's one of those surreal moments that reminds you that there are a surprisingly, nay disturbingly, large number of people in Texas that are still upset that the South lost the war. And let's not forget that. The South lost, and that's a good thing, because otherwise we'd probably still have slavery. And, yes, it was about slavery. Like the joke in The Simpsons, just say slavery.

So now we've cleared that up, yesterday the House Committee on Culture, Recreation, and Tourism became ground zero for the never ending attempt to rewrite the Confederacy as the good guys.

This is not normally a controversial committee. The rest of yesterday's agenda was the normal blend of affable fluff (HCR 64, designating Llano as the official Deer Capital of Texas for a 10-year period beginning in 2015) and tragically practical (HCR 80, petitioning Congress to provide funding for repairs to the Battleship Texas). And then it got ugly with House Bill 1242.

Bill author Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, laid out the measure. It's pretty bland. Rename Confederate Heroes Day Civil War Remembrance Day, and move it from Jan. 19 to the second Monday in May. The bill, Howard said, was intended to acknowledge that there were Texans on both sides in the Civil War, and "to move into an era that is more inclusive."

It may sound minor, but this is Texas and the Civil War so, Howard predicted, "I know we've had a lot of fun and games here, but I know this is very serious to a lot of people. It's serious to me, and it's serious to the young person who brought it to me."

That young person was Jacob Hale, a quiet and polite teen who had spent the last few weeks meeting with the committee and their staff in an attempt to correct how the state represents this pivotal era. As the holiday stands, he said, "It is neither accurate nor placed correctly on the calendar." It ignores the 2,000 Texans that served in the Union army, the 15 counties that voted against Secession, and the 140,000 slaves kept in Texas chains by the Confederacy. Hale's simple proposal would allow the State to commemorate all Texans during the Civil War "whether those Texans fought for the Union or the Confederacy."

Hale was correct. There were Texans on both sides in the Civil War. Let's call them the right, winning side, and the wrong, losing side. But, as has become standard operating practice in Texas, there's an implicit attempt to rewrite that simple historical understanding.

Enter Ken Summers, retired CPA and the first in a long line of white, middle-aged speakers against the bill. Yes, you read that right. Against. Some people, Summers said, wanted to believe that the Civil War was about slavery. "We, on the other hand, believe that there were thousands of men fighting to protect their families against an invasion intent on their destruction." Summers went on argue that keeping Confederate Heroes Day was actually more inclusive than having a day for all Civil War veterans, and that getting rid of it was the kind of group think that they would inflict in Korea.

Yes, that comparison was actually made in a Texas legislative committee room.

Much of the testimony that followed Summers came down to old white folks explaining what Great-Great-Great Grandpappy (the one with the kepi and the nice grey jacket) did for Texas, with Rudy Ray, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans declaiming HB 1242 as "inconsistent with the history of our state." He also noted that Texas overwhelmingly voted to secede. "We were not a Yankee state," he railed, thus inherently arguing that those that fought with the Union were the real traitors.

At least he kept the accusation inherent: Later speaker Norma Holly said "the men who left Texas and the [Confederate States of America] to fight for the North were traitors to their state and their country." Then another of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Jerry Nelson, said, "I do not think we should honor people who served in the other service." If you want to commemorate them, he added, "Go to New York."

There were speakers for the bill, such as Austin Anti-Defamation League regional director Renee Lafair who called it "a unique opportunity" since, rather than simply proposing getting rid of the holiday, Hale had come up with something "more inclusive and less offensive."

But it was an hour of false arguments, all centering on the idea that this would mean writing Johnny Reb out of history (which is exactly what the bill doesn't do), and that there is already an Emancipation Day, so what more do you want? Ray went so far as to claim this was a naked attempt at historical revisionism. What's next, renaming the counties named after Confederates? "If we start trying to change the historical record for political reasons," he said, "we do great damage to our heritage."

But here's the thing about history. Just because something happened, that doesn't mean you have to be proud of it. As Rep. Marissa Marquez, D-El Paso, noted, "History is also a perspective of a particular group of people." After all, she added, the history of Texas includes "the part [of Mexico] that is occupied by the United States."

Ray and others argued that the holiday should just reflect the facts of the Civil War, and how many Texans were rebels treacherous to the Union. But consider the facts of Confederate Heroes Day. It is about the Confederacy, not Texas. The current law states that it is specifically in honor of "Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate heroes." First of all, there's that word heroes again for people who went to war to protect slavery. Two, neither of the named people were from Texas, or had much of anything to do with the reconstruction of Texas. Davis seemingly lived everywhere but the Lone Star State (born in Kentucky, served as Senator for Mississippi, died in Louisiana) and Lee was born and died in Virginia. Moreover, Confederate Heroes Day is on Virginian Lee's birthday.

Then there's the false argument about renaming every building and county named after a rebel. No one is suggesting that. Take the John H. Reagan Building in the Capitol complex. John Henninger Reagan was the Confederacy's postmaster general, but after the war he urged Texans to become full-functioning members of the re-united United States. He genuinely helped Reconstruction, helping pen the 1875 State Constitution and serving as a Congressman for the state.

But he is not who the current law names. Nor is demeaning his work, or renaming counties or buildings, what HB 1242 actually does.

In closing, as HB 1242 went without a vote, Howard even admitted this was originally a bill that she didn't want to carry, and had tried to talk Hale out of it. Now, she said, "I am convinced this is the right thing to do." Sadly, it looks like the bill is going nowhere. After all, this is the Texas where radicals were seriously discussing secession in 2012, and where a state leader can openly refer to the War of Northern Aggression and gets to laugh it off.

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84th Legislature, Donna Howard, Civil War, Marissa Marquez, House Bill 1242, HB 1242, Jacob Hale

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