Tucked in Chapter 662 of Texas’ Government Code is a stunning three-word phrase: Confederate Heroes Day. The phrase is so outlandish that when a 13-year-old Austinite named Jacob Hale saw it on a digital Texas state calendar six years ago, he assumed it was a mistake.
“I thought it was a glitch,” says Hale, now a rising sophomore at Vanderbilt University.
The notion that citizens would want to celebrate Confederates, who broke away from the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery, struck this teenager, who is white, as simply incorrect.
“I didn’t think it would be a big deal to fix it,” Hale says. But Hale soon discovered that addressing what he, as a seventh grader knew to be wrong, would not be so easy in the Texas Legislature.
That’s because Confederate Heroes Day was not formed in error. It was quite deliberately created – and fairly recently at that. The holiday was born in 1973, the same year that Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) tried to pass a bill that would make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday an honorary state holiday.
While Thompson’s bill never even got a vote in the Senate, Confederate Heroes Day was successfully passed. (King’s birthday would not become an official state holiday until 1991.) Observed on Jan. 19 “in honor of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate heroes,” Confederate Heroes Day was established as a “partial holiday,” meaning state offices remain open, but employees can take a paid day off.
In 2015, Hale took aim at the holiday by working with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) to draft House Bill 1242 to rename the holiday Civil War Remembrance Day. The idea then was to replace a holiday that celebrated confederates with one that was more inclusive of union soldiers and slaves. The bill would also move the holiday to May, so that it could not fall around the same time as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed on the third Monday in January.
Hale remembers testifying in favor of the bill in the Capitol. He and the bill’s advocates were
lambasted by opponents. For instance, when Representative Howard tried to explain that the bill was not about erasing history, she was mocked, according to the Texas Tribune. The Tribune further reported that most of those who testified were opposing the bill, which never made it out of the Republican-led House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee.
But things have changed. Where many Republicans were openly against Howard’s bill in 2015, an even more aggressive bill put forth by state Rep. Jarvis Johnson (D-Houston) last session was not as overtly scrutinized. Johnson’s bill sought to abolish Confederate Heroes Day altogether. And although the bill was never put to a vote, only one opponent spoke against it at a hearing last May.
Perhaps that’s because nationwide conversations about race have made it less acceptable for lawmakers to attach their name to something as egregious as Confederate Heroes Day. As 19-year-old Hale put it, “to celebrate the confederacy is to celebrate a racist cause.” It’s as simple as that. Anyone who says otherwise is ignoring the facts. Where it may have been possible for some Republicans to hide behind the veil of silence in the past, Democrats are no longer willing to accept that.
As Hale and Rep. Johnson look ahead to 2021, they are feeling confident that Confederate Heroes Day will be struck down. Johnson plans to again introduce a bill that will abolish the holiday, and he has already received calls from some Republican lawmakers who say they stand with him.
For those who continue to reason that abolishing Confederate Heroes Day is an affront to descendants of Confederates, Johnson has a ready answer.
“When it comes to your heritage, you don’t keep your heritage alive through a statue or a holiday,” he says, explaining that descendants of Adolf Hitler do not celebrate him and Nazi leaders as heroes, even as they continue to learn about Nazi history through books. “To say that you’re celebrating confederate heroes means ‘I’m proud of the confederacy and their work.’ If you’re proud, then you’re saying you are proud of the fact that they fought to keep a certain population of people enslaved.”
Last year, Hale was represented pro bono by D.C. based lobbying firm Akin Gump. Texarkana born Michael Stanley, who was working as a policy analyst at Akin Gump at the time, testified in favor of Johnson’s bill last year. Now a student at the University of Texas School of Law, Stanley is again reaching out to Akin Gump to recruit their support in the upcoming legislative session.
He said that while it’s too early to know exactly what Akin Gump’s role will be, the firm continues to support the cause. Stanley added that he, along with Hale, plan to ramp up their advocacy efforts in the fall. He hopes to get a commitment from Gov. Greg Abbott, who last year agreed to remove a historically inaccurate plaque in the Texas State Capitol that denied slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War.
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