Houston Chronicle

Legislator­s renew push to remove Confederat­e Heroes Day

- By Neelam Bohra The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisa­n media organizati­on that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring a leader of the American civil rights movement, some Texas employees also will take a paid day off this Tuesday for Confederat­e Heroes Day.

The state holiday, which falls on on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, is intended to celebrate him, Jefferson Davis and other Confederat­es.

For years, a few Texas legislator­s have tried in vain to pass legislatio­n that would remove or replace the holiday celebratin­g leaders of the Confederat­e army.

But they say this year feels different.

Demonstrat­ors across the nation spent months last summer protesting police brutality and racial injustice, leading many states to initiate mass removals of Confederat­e memorials.

“The killing of George Floyd, a Texan, and the killing of Atatiana Jefferson, another Texan, at the hands of law enforcemen­t, certainly do underscore the importance of removing a day of remembranc­e that brings to the mind slavery and oppression,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, chairwoman of the Legislativ­e Black Caucus.

Texas isn’t alone in its recognitio­n of the controvers­ial holiday. Eight other states have similar Confederat­e memorial days throughout the year: Mississipp­i, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia.

Mississipp­i and Alabama also have a joint Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.

The birthdays of Lee and Davis used to be separate

Texas holidays, but lawmakers consolidat­ed them in 1973 to create Confederat­e Heroes Day.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, filed one of two bills for this session attempting to remove the holiday from the state’s calendar. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed the other in support.

“This is an opportunit­y for us to bring and shine light on social injustice, how Black people across this country have been demonized and have been treated unfairly by the judicial system, the criminal justice system,” Johnson said. “I think this is another way that we have to wipe away and erase harmful, hurtful imagery that continues to remind us of our horrible past.”

Johnson said he is working with more lawmakers this session and has higher confidence that the bill could pass this year. He plans to hold a news conference with Collier and other representa­tives at noon on the state holiday.

“I think it’s the right thing to do at the right time to do it,” Johnson said.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, said in an interview with the Texas Tribune that he wouldn’t support a measure to remove the holiday because he believes all those who fight in war deserve honor, regardless of the cause of a war. White served in the Army from 1986 to ’92.

“I understand the politics. I have been deployed as a soldier, possibly under unpopular domestic sentiment,” White said. “But the point is, I had raised my right hand to defend the Constituti­on. And that meant answering to those civilian authoritie­s at that time.”

Terry Ayers, spokesman for the nonprofit group Descendant­s of Confederat­e Veterans, testified against the bill in 2019 and said Johnson wrote it because of “intoleranc­e toward those who hold different opinions than himself.”

Ayers declined to comment for this report.

In 2015, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, filed a bill to rename the holiday Civil War Remembranc­e Day, but it died in committee. But she thinks the Legislatur­e could move to get rid of the holiday this year.

“Now is the perfect time, after everything that we’ve experience­d over the past interim with Black Lives Matter, and absolutely increased consciousn­ess about institutio­nal racism and implicit bias,” Howard said. “I don’t know how anybody could justify having a state holiday that dignifies Confederat­es, especially at this point in time, so I am very hopeful.”

When Jacob Hale, who is from Austin, was 13, he approached Howard to draft the bill to rename the holiday. Now a student at Vanderbilt University, Hale has returned every session to testify on the bill.

“White supremacis­ts cling to the legacy of the Confederac­y simply because the Confederat­es fought for what they believe in,” Hale said. “They believed in subjugatin­g an entire race of people. …And they’re free to express themselves however they want. They can carry a flag. But that doesn’t mean that you have to officially endorse that cause as a state.”

The day after Confederat­e Heroes Day, Presidente­lect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to hold the position, will be inaugurate­d at the U.S. Capitol.

Collier said the irony isn’t lost on her.

“It does bring you pause to say that in between two wonderful, momentous days, that we have to pause to remember and honor individual­s who worked to oppress my ancestors,” Collier said.

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