What is Confederate Heroes Day and why do Texans still celebrate it today?

People in power at the Texas Legislature have refused to nix the state holiday. Will this year be different?

On May 9, 1865, the Civil War ended and the Confederacy lost.

More than 150 years later, Texas is one of nine Southern states in the country that recognize “heroes” of the confederacy, like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, with an official state holiday.

On Jan. 19 annually, state workers in Texas get the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day off, with pay, to celebrate “Confederate Heroes Day.” The state requires agencies to keep “skeleton crews” so that they are operational on the holiday, unlike some others, including MLK Day, when state officers are closed.

The holiday was created by Texas lawmakers in 1973 as the result of a consolidation of two previous holidays that celebrated Lee and Davis individually. The state holiday was created less than a decade after the federal signing of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

The juxtaposition of King, a civil rights icon who preached peace and was assassinated, and Davis and Lee, leaders of the Confederate military forces that fought against their own country in an effort to maintain slavery, is deafening to activists and residents who’ve long tried to nix the state holiday.

Laura Cannon, an assistant professor of history at The University of the Incarnate Word, said the holiday memorializes men who were heroes to an unjust cause.

“We have dozens of primary source documents from Confederates that say this war was about property in enslaved human beings,” Cannon said. “Putting your life on the line for a dishonorable cause is not what heroes do. So, saying it’s Confederate Heroes Day is really sending a very specific message about whose history matters and whose history we should choose to remember and memorialize.”

Since 2015, efforts at the Texas Legislature to amend or abolish the holiday on the state’s calendar have all died in committee, meaning they failed to clear even the first legislative hurdle and never were voted on by either the House or the Senate. In other words, the people in power at the Texas Capitol have preserved the holiday.

This session, two bills filed by state Rep. Jarvis Johnson and state Rep. Shawn Thierry, both Houston Democrats, aim to change that. Both proposals aim to abolish the holiday on the state’s calendar in the future, and the lawmakers who filed them believe this session could be different.

Cannon said the two proposals may have a chance this session as public opinion has shifted in the last year or so around race following a year filled with protests against institutional racism and police brutality. Some Southern states this year removed Confederate symbols, statues and monikers that they had long resisted calls to disband.

“I think that there is momentum. I mean, the fact that there are two bills being introduced this session shows that we’re pushing toward having that conversation, at least hoping to have it on the floor and have a vote about these this holiday,” Cannon said. “So, I do think that there’s momentum and I think it’s the right time because we need to confront our history and we need to confront what we are choosing to memorialize.”

Some people, Cannon said, would argue that eliminating the holiday would erase their family and ancestors from the pages of history books. She says that’s not necessarily the case.

“History doesn’t exist on the pages of a calendar or set in bronze in the middle of a park,” Cannon said. “We know the Civil War happened because of the tens of thousands of documents and primary sources that come from the war. So, removing Confederate Heroes Day is not erasing history. It’s about changing the way we remember the war and it doesn’t eliminate people’s ability to honor their ancestors who fought in that war. It just says we don’t need a state holiday that labels the Confederates as heroes and their cause as heroic.”

The Descendents of Confederate Veterans organization declined to comment on the holiday for this article.

According to the Texas Tribune, other states that observe “Confederate Heroes Day” as a holiday are: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia. Mississippi and Alabama also have a joint Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day.

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