After the brutal murder of nine Charleston parishioners solely due to the color of their skin, the nation began a series of wide-ranging debates about the appropriateness of government endorsement of Confederate symbols. The South Carolina Legislature is in the process of debating legislation to remove the battle flag from the capitol grounds, the Mississippi Speaker of the House called for removing the image of the battle flag from the state’s current flag, and Alabama’s governor ordered four Confederate flags to be removed from a monument on the state’s capitol grounds.
Texas has also been part of that conversation. Two weeks ago, I asked Houston ISD – the state’s largest school district – to review and consider renaming schools named after Confederate loyalists, and other districts across the state have begun similar inquiries. On Monday, I joined with legislative colleagues to ask the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker to appoint a task force to discuss the monuments celebrating the Confederacy that dot the Texas Capitol grounds.
The debate about Confederate symbols and monuments did not spring up overnight, and the successes seen the past few weeks across the country did not come easily. Instead, it took decades of dedicated effort from activists and everyday Americans alike. They worked hard because they had to, as Confederate apologists spend considerable time and money redefining and whitewashing the cause of the Civil War.
The monument and plaques at the Texas Capitol are part of that rewriting of history. Some cite states’ rights and Northern coercion as the true causes of the Civil War, while another asserts the outright falsehood that “the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
As I have pointed out previously, there is no better source for why the Confederacy fought the Civil War than the individuals who actually made the decision to secede from the United States.
Texas’ 1861 declaration of secession denounces the United States for “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.” It argues that “all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free.”
Texas’ point of view was certainly not an outlier. Mississippi’s declaration acknowledged the state’s “position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.” Louisiana’s claimed “[t]he people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.” Alabama’s stated that President Abraham Lincoln’s election consigned the South’s “citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”
So let’s be clear: slavery and maintaining a system of racial oppression were the central, detestable causes of the Civil War.
The day after the massacre in Charleston, the United State Supreme Court released a decision holding that Texas did not have to approve specialty license plates festooned with the Confederate battle flag merely because a group asked for it. Instead, the state can exercise discretion and choose what messages it wants to promote.
Like other states, Texas ought to take that role seriously, and not just with regard to license plates. Public institutions like our community schools, universities, and especially the Texas Capitol – the face of our state government – ought not to celebrate individuals whose notoriety stems from their service in defense of human slavery.
We must not only strike down the symbols of racism, but more importantly the structures of racism and the resulting disparities of opportunity and justice. We should take down monuments praising the Confederacy and its overarching goal of maintaining the institution of slavery. But we must be just as vigilant moving forward to take down the continued racial barriers to equality of education, economic opportunities, and fair justice under the law.