The Civil War ended nearly 142 years ago, for most of the country anyway, but bitter battles over how zealously that war should be remembered are erupting in Austin, the Texas capital.
First, rock musician Ted Nugent wore a T-shirt featuring the Confederate battle flag—a banner sometimes employed by Southern white-supremacist groups—at the Jan. 16 inaugural ball for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, prompting criticism from civil-rights groups.
A few days later, the state’s elected land commissioner, arguing for a more “balanced” view of history, marked Confederate Heroes Day—an official state holiday commemorating Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday—by accepting a donation from the Descendants of Confederate Veterans for an archive-preservation project.
At the flagship campus of the University of Texas, officials said they soon will convene a committee to decide what, if anything, to do about four statues of Confederate leaders, including Lee and Jefferson Davis, that greet visitors at the main campus entrance.
A state district judge in Austin is weighing a challenge to the removal from the Texas Supreme Court building of two plaques that commemorate the Confederacy.
All of this is occurring in the shadow of the towering Texas state Capitol, where several statues and inscriptions honor sacrifices of soldiers who fought to defend states’ rights—and the rights of Southerners to keep black slaves.
“It’s confounding, this continuing idolatry of the Confederacy,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas branch of the NAACP and a persistent critic of Confederate nostalgia, “because if you cut it to its very essence, what’s being said by the symbolism is that the Old South was right and slavery was OK.”
Not true, countered Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, whose great-grandfather was a corporal in the Confederate Army.
“Many believe the War between the States was solely about slavery and the Confederacy is synonymous with racism,” Patterson wrote in an Op-Ed article in January. “That conclusion is faulty, because the premise is inaccurate.”
The Civil War long has conjured deeply conflicted emotions across the South, variously evoking feelings of pride, shame, grievance and outrage depending on the role of one’s ancestors. The recent controversies have shown those emotions to be as raw as ever.
A noble or ignoble cause?
The essential conundrum: Is it possible to honor the nobility of individuals who were engaged in an ignoble cause?
To Bledsoe, and many African Americans, the answer is no.
“You don’t walk through a Jewish neighborhood waving a swastika and say, ‘I just want to do this because my great-uncle fought for the Nazis and I’m proud of the fact that he reached the rank of general,’ “ said Bledsoe, an Austin attorney. “What the Nazis did was wrong. And fighting to enslave human beings was wrong. The Confederates were fighting for an immoral cause. There is no way you can change that.”