AUSTIN (KXAN) — The demonstrations and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked intense national debate over racism and politics. Here in Central Texas, it’s renewing the debate over whether to remove public displays honoring the Confederacy.
Some people tried to take matters into their own hands. Vandals painted over south Austin street signs bearing the name of Robert E. Lee. A few days later, some city leaders voiced their support for a petition to rename the road.
At the State Capitol, Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) is bringing new attention to the controversy over Confederate displays in and around the Capitol. He wrote a letter to the State Preservation Board asking to remove a plaque near his office. The inscription on the plaque, which dates back to 1959, reads that the preservation of slavery was not an underlying cause of the Civil War. “The Legislature owes it to the people of Texas to remove these false and offensive reinventions of history,” Johnson wrote.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) responded by calling for a review of the accuracy of Confederate memorials at the State Capitol. But Johnson, who first asked to remove the plaque in 2015, says it’s time to move now. “No study needed. Just a history book and a crowbar,” Johnson wrote in a statement responding to the call for review.
“It is an agonizing issue for many, because it revisits our country’s troubled history with race relations and slavery,” said U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) when asked whether cities and counties should remove Confederate memorials. Cruz called slavery “the original sin of America” and said the Civil War was fought to “expunge that sin.” But Sen. Cruz does not support removing all monuments. “I don’t think it’s beneficial to go through and try to sanitize history and try to erase the Civil War,” he told reporters. “I think that issue is going to be resolved differently, community by community.”
A rally scheduled for Austin, which organizers say was planned before the deadly events in Charlottesville, has some people on edge. The Texas Confederate Militia, a group which defends monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, plans to hold a “Dixie Freedom Rally” on September 23rd. “We’re trying to show people that we’re not the racists that they think we are,” said Brad Oxford, who’s organizing the rally. He told KXAN the group plans to march to the Capitol.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley says the police department is prepared to handle any large-scare demonstration. “The motto of this team is defend the First, and that is what they are focused on, is letting people exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech. But we ensure to the best of our abilities that it is done in a proper, safe and lawful manner.”
The renewed debate over Confederate memorials came amid a dramatic week at the State Capitol. The Texas Legislature’s special session ended a day before lawmakers were expected to go home. In a surprise move, House Speaker Joe Straus closed the session Tuesday evening. The move shut down plans for House and Senate members to work through differences on a property tax bill. The Senate adjourned a few hours later, with angry words for House leadership.
“I think what I’m most unhappy with is the House quit tonight,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a news conference moments after gaveling the session to a close. Gov. Greg Abbott also had harsh words for House members. “There were roadblocks to our ability to even get a vote,” said the Governor, noting that ten of the 20 items on his special session call failed. “Of those ten, nine never received a vote on the House floor,” Abbott told KXAN political reporter Phil Prazan the day after the session ended. “The least that I asked for was a vote by the members of the House and Senate so that voters at home could decide if they are for or against this particular legislator.”