It has been a year since a horrific tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, caused a loss of life and painfully reminded us that bigotry still exists and needs to be confronted.
It was bigotry also, and a backlash to the Civil Rights movement, that likely motivated state officials to hang a demonstrably false and incendiary plaque in our state Capitol during the late 1950s. We’ve made a lot of progress on civil rights since then. But amazingly, this plaque remains, because there is simply no political will among the state’s top elected officials to remove it.
At issue is the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque in the Capitol. Dedicated during an ugly period when many in public office resisted school desegregation, it honors an organization called the Children of the Confederacy.
The plaque reads that the Children of the Confederacy “pledge ourselves to preserve pure ideals: To honor our veterans, to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is, that the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery) and to always act in a manner that will reflect honor upon our noble and patriotic ancestors.”
We should not try to hide the fact that the Confederacy is part of our history. But in a public space like the Texas Capitol, we should also not promote falsehoods. At the Texas Secession Convention in early 1861, those in attendance adopted a “declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.” It read, in part, “In this free government, all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights, that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind.” Other southern states adopted declarations with a similar focus on slavery.
The Children of the Confederacy is an auxiliary group to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Tellingly, it appears that the organization no longer stands by the plaque’s most misleading phrase. At a convention three years ago, the Daughters of the Confederacy removed the phrase “nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery” from the creed. If this group no longer includes this language in its own creed, why should it be displayed in the Capitol?
It has been suggested that the Legislature needs to vote before any action on the plaque is taken. But this argument is simply a stalling tactic. The State Preservation Board has the authority to “preserve, maintain and restore” the Capitol. The Governor chairs the Board, and the Lieutenant Governor and I (as Speaker of the House) are vice chairs. The Board includes three other members. The Board has acted in the past to move Capitol monuments. In fact, during a Capitol renovation in the 1990s, this very plaque was moved from the south foyer of the Capitol to its current location on the other side of the first-floor rotunda. You could argue that anyone who does not think the Board has the authority to move the plaque now should probably be advocating returning it to its original, and more prominent, location.
Last year, I wrote my fellow members of the State Preservation Board to call for action, but none has been taken. I continue to hope that the Governor will call a meeting of the Board to take this up. The Preservation Board should use the authority that state law plainly gives us and move this plaque out of the Capitol – not because it mentions the Confederacy or Civil War, but because it describes those events in terms that are historically and morally wrong.
A final set of arguments fall into the “slippery slope” category: if this plaque is removed, what should happen to Confederate memorials, or even to place names that honor those who owned slaves? Such arguments raise a valid point that each memorial or designation should be considered in its full context. But these kinds of arguments also fallaciously assume that we lack the ability to draw distinctions. In the case of this particular plaque, no compelling defense of its content has been offered because none exists.
Those of us who support moving this plaque do not wish to erase history. But plain falsehoods do history no favors. The plaque was placed in the Capitol at a moment of division and hate. If we really want to show that we’ve made progress in the 60 years since, we need to stop the stalling and remove it.
Joe Straus is Speaker of the Texas House and a State Representative from San Antonio.