Efforts to remove Civil War statues in Charlottesville, Va. have sparked similar efforts around the country. State Rep. Eric Johnson *03, has asked the Texas State Preservation Board to remove a plaque outside his office in Austin and announced his intention to introduce a resolution to remove all Confederate iconography in the state capitol. Johnson, whose district encompasses downtown Dallas, spoke with PAW about the issue.
What motivated you to do this now?
There are at least a dozen Confederate statues and flags in and around the state capitol. I’ve always had an issue with them but now is the right time to have the conversation because people are paying attention.
Specifically, there is a plaque right outside my office titled “Children of the Confederacy Creed.” It was put up in 1959, nearly a century after the Civil War, by a group called the Children of the Confederacy. The first paragraph says the plaque is meant to “love and honor the heroic deeds of those who enlisted in the Confederate Army and upheld its flag through four years of war.” Now it’s offensive enough that we’re lauding these guys as heroes, but that’s kind of par for the course. You find plaques like that all over the South.
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It’s the second paragraph of the plaque that really shows why it needs to go. It says we should pledge ourselves “to study and teach the truths of history,” specifically that “the War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.” That is demonstrably untrue. The Texas ordinance of secession flat out says that they left over slavery. It’s just false to say otherwise.
So the question is, what sort of standards is the state preservation board applying to allow a historically inaccurate plaque like that to hang on the walls of the capitol? It’s a lie and it needs to come down for that reason.
How do you respond to criticism that removing these statues and plaques is an attempt to erase history?
I reject that. I don’t think we’re trying to erase history, we’re trying to correct it. The problem with this Confederate iconography is that it was thrown up to manipulate and distort history. How can you describe a secessionist movement—a treasonous act—as patriotic?
Does anyone even pay attention to these monuments?
We’re seeing right now in Charlottesville the danger that these structures pose. They become a rallying point for white supremacists who ironically are taking the correct message from what the Confederacy stood for. Say this about them: The neo-Nazis actually get it right. They understand exactly what the Civil War was over and that’s why they gravitate to places like the statue of Robert E. Lee [in Charlottesville] to meet. The folks who put these things up in the mid-20th century did so to repudiate the civil rights movement and reassert a sanitized view of the Civil War as a noble cause that had nothing to do with slavery. We are dealing with the aftermath of that now and we’re going to have to address it.
Does removing the statues put us on a slippery slope? Where does it end?
I am not suggesting that we should never honor anyone who ever did a single thing wrong or had a thought that by 2017 standards was not a progressive thought. But if you’re going to be enshrined in a public space, I think it’s reasonable to ask about your overall contribution to the body politic. Washington and Jefferson held slaves, but they also helped found the nation. On balance, their contributions were far greater than their sins.
But Confederate soldiers and leaders — fighting to destroy the Union was their contribution to history. We wouldn’t even know who those guys were if they hadn’t taken up arms against the United States to defend white supremacy and slavery. That is not a value that should be honored in a public space anywhere.
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83