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How ‘The Highwaymen’ whitewashes Frank Hamer and the Texas Rangers

The film’s hero left a legacy of racist violence in Texas.

Actors Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner and Thomas Mann star in a scene from "The Highwaymen." (Merrick Morton/Netflix via AP)

On Friday, Netflix released the new film “The Highwaymen,” featuring Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, dubbed by screenwriter John Fusco as “arguably the greatest law officer of the 20th century.” The film has already earned the stamp of approval from Texas audiences. Emily McCullar of Texas Monthly described the movie as a “classic Texas story, one that doesn’t push back on the white, masculine, Wild-West mythology that Texans cling to.”

We’ve all partaken in the creation of this mythical Texas, especially when it comes to the Texas Rangers. Politicians, historians, the media and historical commissions have long celebrated the Texas Rangers, transforming them into a mythical hero in radio, film and eventually television shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

But this myth has relied on a public willingness to overlook lawmen breaking the law and ignore (or even celebrate) the Rangers’ long history of racial violence targeting Native Americans, ethnic Mexicans and African Americans. “The Highwaymen” threatens to further this mythology at precisely the moment when many in Texas are beginning to grapple with this appalling history.

After Texas claimed independence from Mexico in 1836, the Texas Rangers were developed as a “fighting force” for Anglo settlers in the ongoing war for racial supremacy — battling Mexican landowners and indigenous nations while supporting chattel slavery. Frank Hamer started his career in the early 20th century when the Texas Rangers helped enforce new Jim Crow and Juan Crow segregation laws targeting black and Mexican Texans and intimidating labor organizers and anti-lynching activists. These state police officers blurred the lines between enforcing state laws, practicing vigilantism and inciting racial terror.

In fact, the abuses were so extensive that the Texas legislature investigated charges of Rangers denying residents due process, torturing prisoners, murdering unarmed prisoners and coordinating massacres. In early 1919, in the span of two weeks, 83 witnesses testified. Ultimately, the committee found the Texas Rangers culpable of misconduct and “unwarranted disregard of the rights of citizenship.”

All along the way, the Rangers and their supporters tried to undermine the legal process. Hamer played a significant role in this process. Over the years, he built a reputation for his harsh treatment of suspects, brutal interrogations and unhesitating use of his gun. In 1915 he posed next to the corpses of Jesus García, Mauricio García, Amado Muñoz and Muñoz’s brother like trophies. Photographer Robert Runyon turned carnage into profit when he sold the image as postcards. These postcards, like those of lynchings, circulated widely and were effective methods of racial intimidation. Cloaked in legal authority, the Rangers helped criminalize the dead and spread fear.

And so, when he came under investigation Hamer used the same tactics to defend himself. In December 1918, Hamer approached State Rep. José T Canales, asking for the name of the “[expletive]” who had accused Hamer and other Rangers of abusing him near Rio Grande City. Hamer warned Canales to stop collecting cases of Ranger abuse, threatening, “If you don’t stop that you are going to get hurt.”

Canales sent a telegram to Gov. William P. Hobby reporting the threat. But apparently threatening the life of a sitting state representative did not require disciplinary action. Adjutant General James Harley merely wired Hamer: “Under Governor’s orders you are instructed not to make any threats against the lives of any citizens especially J.T. Canales.”

Hamer’s fear tactics took their toll on Canales. In the days leading up to the legislature’s investigation, Hamer reportedly stalked the state representative around Austin. Canales’s wife, Anne Anderson Wheeler Canales, and other legislators, such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, escorted Canales into the hearing to protect him from assassination attempts.

In the end, Hamer’s intimidation failed. Canales continued to lead the investigation, and, despite the hostile climate, Anglo Texans, Mexican Americans, Mexican nationals and African Americans testified. In some cases witnesses identified Rangers sitting in the audience as their abusers. The collection of witnesses showed that Ranger violence touched members of all races, genders and classes in this era.

The 1919 investigation is now recognized by historians as a pioneering civil rights effort to end police brutality. The hearings left a record of racist Ranger violence, as well as a transcript of state authorities’ attempts to justify extralegal violence against racial minorities. But while the hearings exposed injustices, they didn’t end them. A culture of impunity prevailed, and Rangers continued to escape prosecution. Some charged with murder were dismissed, only to be hired by other law enforcement agencies.

Hamer continued on the Ranger force and was allowed to resuscitate his reputation. He is praised for transitioning from an era of Rangers on horseback to officers driving Model-T Fords. He later became a celebrity in the 1930s for his role in “hunting” and eventually killing the infamous outlaw couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

Biographers of Hamer leave his intimidation of Canales out of their account of his life, dismiss the behavior as uncharacteristic or try to excuse his abusive policing practices as simply part of a violent era. But there were other officers and U.S. soldiers working in the same locations who did not resort to extralegal violence. Sheriff William T. Vann of Brownsville, for example, risking his own life, protested Rangers murdering innocent ethnic Mexicans and filed complaints with the governor. In 1919, he publicly testified to the injustices he witnessed. Put simply, there are no excuses for extralegal violence by police.

Today, descendants of racial violence, historians with the organization Refusing to Forget, cultural institutions like the Bullock Texas State History Museum and Texas politicians such as State Sen. José T. Rodríguez and State Rep. Terry Canales are grappling with Texas’s history of police violence. In that context, films like “The Highwaymen” are counterproductive, encouraging a nostalgic return to outdated and mythical accounts of the past, when the Texas Rangers’ extralegal violence stood for good ol’ Texas justice.

And that is why knowing the violent history of Hamer and the Texas Rangers matters. “The Highwaymen” is an eerie reminder of how far we have to go in bringing about a critical understanding of police violence, one desperately needed to inform our ideas of justice and heroism.