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In its remarkable annual January feel-good celebration, San Antonio on Monday marked Martin Luther King Day with hundreds of thousands of citizens taking to the streets for one of the nation’s largest marches commemorating the civil rights martyr.
Here’s something else to celebrate: The local marking of a competing state holiday that fell on Sunday and was so muted, that I could find no notice of it.
That holiday was Confederate Heroes Day, celebrated annually on Jan. 19, the birthday of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general.
Don’t get me wrong. There were many Texans, and other Southerners, who fought heroically in the Civil War. The problem is that it is historically hard to celebrate their bravery without celebrating the cause for which they fought.
Confederate apologists argue that this cause was not slavery but states’ rights and other liberties. If you learned that in school and still believe it, please read the “declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union,” produced in 1861 by the official convention that voted overwhelmingly for secession. I’ll make it easy for you. It’s just 25 short paragraphs, nearly a third of which don’t even mention slavery. You can find it here.
Those who champion the holiday, and who have opposed the removal of statues celebrating Confederate history say to do so is to “erase history.” But the reality is that it was those who romanticized the Confederacy, who worked hard to erase history. Not only of the roots of the Civil War, but also the savagery of slavery, the Jim Crow laws that kept “freed” slaves from being free, the terrorism of lynching that drove millions of blacks north, and the brutal economic discrimination in housing, agriculture and other areas after World War II.
The North was complicit, failing to tell of the North’s role in the business of slavery, its withdrawal from early post-Civil War efforts to protect the rights of freed slaves, its massive segregation of and discrimination against those blacks who flocked to the North to escape terrorism and get better jobs.
Happily, in recent years, much of that erased history has come to light through books, museums, and popular culture.
Author Stephen Harrigan takes the yellowed varnish off in his magnificent new history of Texas, Big, Wonderful Thing. It is 900 pages of lively prose, but you don’t have to tackle it at once. You can dip into the chapters that interest you most. Chapter 24, “Reconstructed,” graphically tells the gruesome story of post-Civil War Texas. It’s a great corrective for those of us who grew up hearing mostly about the evils of carpet baggers and scalawags.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ beautifully written novel, The Water Dancer, powerfully presents a slave’s view of his plight.
Hollywood, which in its early days glorified the Klan in Birth of a Nation and presented a benign view of slavery in Gone with the Wind, has in recent years given us 12 Years a Slave, Django, and Harriet.
And then there are the civil rights museums — in Washington, D.C.; Memphis, Tennessee; Atlanta; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama, and elsewhere. They tell the stories of courage, brutality, and bloodshed that marked the 20th-century struggle for justice.
It was a visit two weeks ago to one of the most powerful of these institutions that provoked this column. Formally, it is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Informally, it’s the Lynching Memorial. On a rise of six acres in the middle of Montgomery, Alabama, are 800 steel “boxes,” suspended from a roof, each containing the name of an American county and the names and dates of persons lynched in each — a total of more than 4,000 lynchings.
As you enter the pavilion in which the boxes are hanged, you begin walking down a slope, forcing you to look up at the memorials individually and then the mass collection of them. Suddenly, it’s not just your brain but also your gut that senses you are looking at hangings. It is sobering, sickening.
I wanted, of course, to know if Bexar County was represented. I asked a young woman on staff if she could help me. She did. Alexander Washington was Bexar County’s sole entry. He was hanged on October 11, 1886, in Somerset.
According to news accounts at the time, he was hanged “for a second attempt to outrage a white girl living in the neighborhood.” She was described as “the daughter of one of the most respectable farmers in the country (sic).”
Washington had been arrested once or twice before but released because of insufficient evidence. This time, he was arrested and taken into custody, but before he could be moved to Pleasanton, “a body of masked men” took him and hanged him.
The Fort Worth Gazette noted — without explaining how it knew — that the “colored population in the neighborhood regard the punishment as a just one, and say they would have helped to hang him themselves if they had known what was going on.”
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The Galveston News reported that “The neighborhood is reported quiet, and no attempt has been made to discover the parties engaged in the lynching.”
I gathered these details from a website, lynchingintexas.org, a project of good folks at Sam Houston State University.
Counties in East Texas that had a larger slave-based economy had many more lynchings. What’s more, the staff at the Lynching Memorial believe that even with thorough research, they were unable to produce a complete record. In this area, the numbers would grow if lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were fully documented.
The Memorial offers some of the more outrageous reasons for lynchings. “Charles Shipman was lynched in Fort Bend County, Texas, in 1918 for arguing with the white owner of the plantation where he lived and worked.” Also in 1918, in southern Georgia, white mobs killed at least 13 blacks after a plantation owner was murdered. Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, protested the day after her husband was lynched, leading to her being hanged by her feet, burned and sliced open so that her baby fell out.
These are gruesome facts, part of the history that had been erased. The point of dealing with them is not to provoke shame, even though that’s a natural response. It is that the nation cannot be freed from its past until it owns its past.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization behind the memorial, told the New York Times when the Memorial opened nearly two years ago, that people in America don’t want to admit wrongdoing because they expect only punishment.
“I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America,” he said. “I want to liberate America.”