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Opinion It’s time for Texas to abolish Confederate Heroes Day

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is removed from the University of Texas campus in Austin on Aug. 21, 2017. (Eric Gay/AP)
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Across America, physical monuments to the Confederacy are being challenged and removed — as they should be. But there is a less-talked-about territory that the Confederacy still occupies: state holidays.

As the expression around here goes, I was yesterday years old when I found out my home state of Texas marks Confederate Heroes Day every Jan. 19. I doubt many other Texans know the public holiday exists. It’s not talked about in schools, thank goodness. Public holidays celebrating Confederates as “heroes” have no place in modern-day America.

But Texas’s Confederate Heroes Day is not some relic of the Civil War, or even Reconstruction. It came to life out of the backlash to Black Texas lawmakers daring to ask for a Black freedom fighter to be honored by the state.

As recounted in a lengthy story in Texas Monthly, it all began in 1973, when eight Black representatives joined the Texas House, the highest number since Reconstruction. One of them, 34-year-old Senfronia Thompson, introduced a bill to urge the state to recognize the Jan. 15 birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as an honorary holiday, but without the full bells and whistles of a taxpayer-funded day off for public employees. White Republican lawmakers opposed the bill, some claiming that Texas didn’t need any more state holidays and memorials, and that King wasn’t deserving of state holiday recognition because he wasn’t from Texas.

But state of birth did not stop Texas legislators from shortly passing a bill to memorialize Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee on Lee’s birthday, Jan. 19, under the name Confederate Heroes Day. It was absurd enough that the House responded to Black lawmakers with an utterly un-American celebration of Confederate traitors, enslavers, racists and, above all, literal losers. But neither Davis nor Lee was even Texan!

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At least seven other states, all in the South, still have Confederate Memorial Days — which occur mostly in April, when a number of those states observe Confederate History Month. But Texas has the ignoble distinction of celebrating White oppression just days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday. It’s par for the course for Texas — the last state in the defeated Confederacy to let enslaved Black people know they were free (that’s what’s celebrated on Juneteenth).

Though Confederate Heroes Day has sunk into relative obscurity, some Black lawmakers have been trying to keep up the fight to get rid of it altogether. One is Jarvis Johnson, a Democrat from Houston. Like me, Johnson, whose family hails from Nacogdoches, Tex., never heard of the holiday growing up. I asked him how old he was when he found out about it. “I was yesterday years old! I was a state representative when I found out,” he said.

Johnson reintroduced a bill to eliminate the holiday last year. “This is the third time I’ve carried the bill, but it hasn’t been going anywhere when the GOP is in the midst of passing the most hateful legislation,” he said, referring to voting restriction laws and attacks on teaching race in school. “It hasn’t even been given a hearing.”

He said that a bill such as this would usually come under the purview of the legislative committee on Texas Culture, Recreation and Tourism, but this one was sent instead to the State Affairs Committee. “That’s where they send bills to die.”

On Jan. 19, I emailed and called Rep. Chris Paddie (R), chair of the State Affairs Committee, to ask why he had not brought the bill up for a hearing last year. Surely, I said, doing so would have put the holiday up for more public scrutiny and debate. (Paddie did not respond to the query by evening; I wondered whether he had taken the holiday off.)

Johnson told me that he has been advised to just let the issue alone since the holiday is not well known. “Then why do we even have it?” he asked.

Indeed, what is the point of having a virtually hidden public holiday? For those who claim the need to honor their Confederate family lines, Johnson has a rebuttal. “My ancestors fought in the Confederacy. My great-great-grandfather was a [White] slave owner,” he said, explaining that his great-great-grandmother was an enslaved child who was raped by that owner and gave birth at 13. “There are many people in our families we aren’t proud of. I’m not going to embrace [an] evil person just because we carry the same family name.”

Confederate Heroes Day speaks to the hypocrisy and double dealing of Texas Republicans when it comes to preserving white supremacy. It’s about claiming to be proud of the courage of Confederate warriors while being too cowardly to bring the matter into the area of public debate. Heck, none of the GOP leaders even tweeted anything about the holiday.

The South lost. It’s good to bring down Confederate monuments. But it’s also time for Texas to stop giving symbolic shelter to enslavers and rapists and traitors — and relegate Confederate Heroes Day to the ash heap of history, where it belongs.