One of Texas’s most enduring memorials to the Confederacy isn’t a statue cast in bronze or a plaque dedicated to the Lost Cause. It’s a state holiday the Texas Legislature created in 1973, more than one hundred years after the Civil War ended. Every year, on January 19—Robert E. Lee’s birthday—Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day. It’s a “partial” holiday,” so state offices remain open, but employees can take a paid day off “in honor of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate heroes.” Even as monuments to the Confederacy have begun to fall in recent years, efforts to abolish or at least rename the holiday have nonetheless been fruitless at the Texas Legislature.
State representative James White, who represents a swath of East Texas, is one of the holiday’s few outspoken supporters. The only Black Republican in the Texas Legislature, White has defended Confederate monuments in the past, favoring legislation that would have made it illegal for municipalities to remove, relocate, or alter Confederate statues or anything of “historical significance.” He takes a similar position on Confederate Heroes Day. “We’re bringing down monuments, taking names off of buildings, and I’m like, what does that have to do about some young black kid getting pulled over at two o’clock in the morning and dogged out by a policeman?”
Representative Jarvis Johnson—the Houston Democrat who authored the 2019 bill that sought to remove the holiday from the state calendar—believes it’s all connected. He’s thinking about George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and the police who killed them. He’s thinking about how Confederate memorials aren’t just homages to long-dead soldiers; they are ongoing incitements and insults to those the Confederacy sought to keep enslaved. “These images and words give some people the courage and even the audacity to do what they do to people of color, because it emboldens them,” Johnson said. He also takes umbrage with the holiday’s name. “A hero is somebody that’s done something noble. There are no heroes in the Confederacy.”
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Johnson’s bill never made it out of the House State Affairs Committee. The committee’s chairman, Republican Dade Phelan of Beaumont, gave HB 1183 a public hearing in late April, but never put it to a vote. Johnson says,“I think my colleagues across the aisle succumbed to the very small portion of their base that digs in on this because they think it’s a direct affront to their patriotism, to them being Texans.”
(Texas Monthly reached out to Phelan and the seven other Republican representatives who make up the majority of the State Affairs Committee for comment, but none responded.)
In 2019, five witnesses testified in favor of HB 1183 to the committee, and only one spoke against it, Terry Ayres, a spokesman for the Descendants of Confederate Veterans, an Austin nonprofit. He said the bill was “rooted in bigotry” and Johnson’s own “intolerance.” It was an affront to the descendants of the roughly 90,000 soldiers sent by Texas to defend the Confederacy.
In this case as in others, debates about Confederate memorials often boil down to whose heritage deserves to be honored, and what it means to erase parts of our history. That’s what statues and plaques and holidays are for, right? To preserve the lessons and values of the past. So let’s look at the history of Confederate Heroes Day, and what might be learned from it.
Confederate Heroes Day has its origins in another Confederacy-celebrating holiday. In 1931, during the depths of the Jim Crow era, the Texas Legislature made Robert E. Lee’s birthday, January 19, a state holiday, adding it to the calendar along with former Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s birthday, June 3, which had been an official state holiday since 1905.
On January 23, 1973, the day after former president Lyndon Johnson died of a heart attack, a bill was introduced in the Texas Senate to make his birthday, August 27, an official state holiday. Because holidays cost Texas money (the state gives employees paid time off), tight-fisted lawmakers decided to consolidate the Davis and Lee birthdays into a new Confederate Heroes Day on January 19, four days after the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
These events didn’t unfold in a vacuum. The 1973 legislative session was of great historical significance. For starters, it was the first to follow the Sharpstown scandal, a stock fraud case that tanked the political careers of Governor Preston Smith, Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, and House Speaker Gus Mutscher (all Democrats). The Texas House saw massive turnover that year, with 71 incoming freshmen, including eight new Black representatives, the most in the House since Reconstruction.
One of those new Black lawmakers was Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat who was 34 years old. The first legislation Thompson filed was House Bill 118, which sought to make Martin Luther King’s January 15 birthday an “honorary” state holiday. Under her proposal, MLK Day would be celebrated in Texas schools, and the governor would make an annual proclamation honoring the civil rights leader, but no state offices or banks would close in observance. According to newspaper accounts from the time, Thompson’s proposal was a compromise to avoid “the cost of paying state workers on legal holidays.”
Compromise or not, the bill was still unacceptable to many legislators. In March of 1973 (after the bill had passed the House), United Press International reported that Representative Bill Blythe, a Republican from Houston, had distributed pamphlets to House members that linked King to Communist activities. At the time, Thompson described it as “hate literature” and “John Birch trash.” Today, she remembers things differently, telling me that Blythe’s pamphlet said “he was against my bill and that the Black folks and the ape were like brothers.” (Blythe says he would have voted against the bill because King wasn’t a Texan, but he has no recollection of handing out anti-MLK literature on the floor. “It wasn’t my characteristic,” he says. “I just never did do that sort of thing.”)
Blythe wasn’t the only lawmaker to publicly decry the bill. In House records, Representative James R. Nowlin, a San Antonio Republican, wrote that he was “opposed to the creation of any additional state legal or memorial holidays.” Representative Bill Sullivant, a Democrat from Gainesville, concurred, writing that “my vote is a personal protest against the practice of spending valuable time debating such divisive and unproductive resolutions…” His main reason for voting “nay” was because King “was not a native Texan.” Sullivant made no such comment about the bill that created Confederate Heroes Day, a holiday in support of non-Texans Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
In late March, Thompson’s bill went to the Senate, where it languished for a month and a half. With just ten days left in the session, Thompson and the seven other Black legislators in the House called on Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby to “break the blockage of consideration” and bring the bill up for a vote. “If the state is unwilling to honor Dr. King,” read the statement, “what black man will be honored in Texas? Texans honor the memory of the Confederacy, which fought to seal the chains of slavery against our forefathers. The irony slaps the face of every black Texan.”
Three days later, the Senate committee that had bottled up the MLK Day bill sent it along to the full Senate, but it never got a vote. Instead, the upper chamber okayed Confederate Heroes Day, and Texas’s newest state holiday was born. Though the United States would formally recognize King’s birthday as a legal holiday in 1984, it did not become an official state holiday in Texas until 1991. (At least forty-four states had already recognized the holiday by then. The last was South Carolina in 2000.)
In the past couple of decades, Confederate Heroes Day has flown somewhat under the radar. Many Texans don’t know it exists. In 2015, a thirteen-year-old Austinite named Jacob Hale was shocked when he saw it on the official state calendar. Hale, who is white, thought it was a clerical error. “I thought that this was just a mistake that no one knew about, that I would just kind of bring it to people’s attention and then they would make the necessary change. That hasn’t panned out.”
Hale reached out to Representative Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, and together they crafted a bill to rename the holiday Civil War Remembrance Day, and move it to May so it couldn’t ever fall on King’s holiday, which is observed on the third Monday of January. Hale testified in favor of Howard’s bill at a hearing at the Capitol. But it was left pending in committee. Representative Helen Giddings drafted a similar bill in 2017, but it never even got a hearing.
Johnson believes the holiday doesn’t just need to be renamed; it needs to be abolished. He plans to take aim at it once more when the Legislature next convenes in January. He has Senfronia Thompson’s support. “Why would we honor traitors?” she asks. Johnson has Hale’s help too. From his dorm room at Vanderbilt, Hale has already put together a list of legislators to contact and get statements from before the session even begins. He thinks the tide is turning. In 2015, twenty-two witnesses testified against Howard’s bill; last year, there was only Terry Ayers.