By DR. SELENA SEABROOKS
The Dallas Examiner
The 88th Texas Legislative Session began last month, and several civil rights bills have been filed. Among them is one that would abolish the Confederate Heroes Day holiday.
“We have to learn to teach history and not celebrate those eras of history that were harmful to people,” State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, said during a recent interview. “There will come a time when this state will have to pay for its transgressions if it does not admit them, apologize for them, and move on.
“You can dog whistle all you want, but at the end of the day, it’s still there defined, and it still engages and even invigorates a small minority of people that want to see and celebrate this type of mindset that creates the division, that creates the disparities, that this state is trying to move away from.”
The holiday was enacted in 1931 as Lee Day to honor Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Lee was a confederate general during the American Civil War who opposed racial equality for African Americans. In 1973, the holiday was consolidated with a holiday celebrating Jefferson Davis and renamed “Confederate Heroes Day.” Davis served as the first and only president of the confederate states and was a supporter of slavery and racism against African Americans.
Celebrated on Jan. 19, the holiday often falls on the week of Martin Luther King Day, which is celebrated the third Monday in January to honor the late Civil Rights Movement leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The official state description of Confederate Heroes Day says it is held “in honor of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other confederate heroes.”
“It was something that was created back in 1973 as an affront to what, at that time, State Representative Senfronia Thompson had wanted to introduce. That was simply to acknowledge the works of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Jarvis Johnson explained about the holiday. “From that came the mindset and the notion that they should go ahead and create a holiday to commemorate Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee.”
The state holiday has met opposition through the years. The first attempt to abolish the holiday occurred in 2015 by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. A grade schooler named Jacob Hale brought the holiday to Howard’s attention.
“He was befuddled and said, ‘I don’t understand what this means. What is a Confederate Heroes Day?’ He just thought it was ludicrous, and maybe he thought it was a joke and literally did some research and got in touch with his state rep.,” Jarvis Johnson commented on Hale.
This would be Jarvis Johnson’s third attempt to abolish the holiday. In 2019, he filed House Bill 1183. He filed a similar bill in 2021, HB 36, and another similar bill, HB 51, this session. Sen. Nathan Johnson has filed similar legislation in the Texas Senate this session.
“Would you enact this law today? Would you create this holiday today?” the senator asked. “And if you wouldn’t enact it, if you wouldn’t create this holiday today, you should vote to get rid of it. And every session you don’t vote to get rid of it, you’re recreating it.”
Jarvis Johnson explained that they have gained support for abolishing the holiday and that he is hopeful that legislation will advance this session. However, he noted that significant barriers still exist.
“I’ve often challenged my Republic colleagues that call themselves the Party of Lincoln. When you are a Party of Lincoln, that means that you are anti-Confederacy; therefore, you can’t be a walking, talking contradiction,” Jarvis Johnson expressed.
“Someone might say, ‘I think of this, not in terms of slavery or racism, white supremacy, this is about state’s rights.’ Well, it’s about state’s rights to run over human rights, and I think we have to give human rights that nod on that one,” Nathan Johnson added.
The state representative and the senator reflected on the holiday’s history.
“More people than not don’t know that the holiday exists, but I think that’s why it’s so very important that we bring it to the attention of this state and this country,” Jarvis Johnson said.
The confederate holiday was enacted after the rise of civil rights organizations – such as the NAACP, National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – and national civil rights laws had begun to defeat Jim Crow laws.
“Even though the country was moving in the right direction after civil rights, Texas decided to go in reverse and put this holiday in place, that we all believe should not be in place and certainly shouldn’t be defined or let it define who Texas is and what Texas can be,” Jarvis Johnson stated.
Nathan Johnson further explained that the Texas leadership was opposed to the state’s progressive direction.
“This was kind of a signal from the people who were controlling Texas at the time that we’re not moving in that direction. It was a cultural response to change, and it just happened to be that change was going in the right direction, and Texas leaders wanted to make sure we didn’t go there. It was a big, bad, dumb statement,” the senator said.
The state representative and the senator encouraged Texans to follow the bill, continue the conversation about it, and contact their state representatives and senators about abolishing the holiday.
“You can preserve Southern cultural history without preserving its worse elements, certainly without celebrating its worse elements,” Nathan Johnson said in closing.