On Monday, State Senator Brandon Creighton rose on the Senate floor to present his bill SB 1663. He is proposing a stringent process for the removal or alteration of historic monuments in Texas.
Our historical monuments tell the story of Texas. Our history is part of who we are, part of the story of Texas, but history is never just one person's account.
What followed was a four-hour debate on the Senate floor that was passionate and sometimes personal.
Creighton's bill did not arise out of a vacuum. It was a reaction to a number of confederate monuments ,plaques and symbols that had been removed in recent years from public areas, including the Texas Capitol. Those removals came after a public outcry and open debate. However, the Republican state senator from Conroe framed the events differently.
We've seen a trend across the nation and the world where controversial monuments are removed or destroyed often without any input, study or process, and I fear that we'll look back and regret that this was a period where deleting history was more important than learning from it. This bill today is simply a process for the state to rely on when considering removing or altering a monument in Texas.
Senate Bill 1663 would require two-thirds of members and both legislative chambers to approve the removal relocation or alteration of monuments and memorials that have been on state property for more than 25 years. The city or county monuments that have been up for at least 25 years could only be removed, relocated, or altered if approved by a supermajority of the governing board. The bill doesn't single out confederate monuments for protection, but it was the markers, shrines and statues related to that rebellion that dominated the debate.
I think we have a real solution in this bill that doesn't include hiding from our past and we as Texans will face our past head on. We'll teach and learn from it and work forward together for the Texas we all want to see and that we all love so much.
The first to rise to challenge Creighton and the Senate Bill 1663 was senator Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat.
Some of the history that our country and our state has seen was so devastating to different people that
it's just intolerable for us to want to remember and live with some of the history in our country and state. The majority of our country, people in our country, in our state are embarrassed by it. And all I'm gonna say to you today is we don't want to keep reliving that. Okay. It was so detrimental and so much on different people of different colors and races and ethnic that we don't care to relive them.
Miles didn't have to look far to find examples of higher ranking confederates who are still being honored in Texas. Miles observed that on the walls and the Senate chamber, there were portraits that raise serious questions.
Are you comfortable with everybody that's on the walls?
These portraits and all that is found in this chamber were decided a long time ago.
I understand that. Are you comfortable?
From a comfort standpoint , I understand why some of these portraits are uncomfortable.
Do you understand why?
The best I can. I mean, I, I don't live in your shoes so all I can do is understand history.
You don't live in my shoes, Senator Creighton. And you and I are going to work together to make things better.
Absolutely correct. Yeah.
The Great Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy and is in an honored place in the chamber right next to the very, very honorable Stephen F. Austin. I would say he's of national historical significance, but was he a significant historical person for the state of Texas?
I can't speak to why years and years and years ago, any of these portraits were decided to be placed, Sen. Miles. All I would say is it's a walk through time. That is, they are all historical figures and there's a balance through the chamber. And I can see over the years, how placement certainly with Ms. Jordan and with President Johnson, why those figures were placed in the chamber, but that others weren't removed because we own all of the history.
You're right. Senator Creighton and I agree as I close. You and I weren't here to approve these portraits being placed in this chamber. I can tell you that every day, people like myself and Senator West and those who've come before us, walk in here and have to see the state of Texas honoring Confederate leaders. We have to deal with it. We have to accept it. It's not something that we are light too, but because we didn't have a say so in it at the time, we have to just accept it.
Senator Creighton, I've known you since 2007. We’re personal friends. We have fellowshipped outside of this building. But as your brother, I'm going to tell you the bill that you are carrying and that you are sponsoring on the senate floor today — it's disgraceful to myself and to people who've come before me.
And I'd ask that you really consider some of the pain and heartache that we have to go through. I see often some of my brothers and sisters of color on this floor and what we have to go through as it relates to our Texas history.
Senator Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas, also questioned Creighton about Senate bill 1663 and how it would protect statues and other honors for confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Dallas City Council voted last year to remove a statue of Lee from a park and the University of Texas in 2017 removed several statues of Lee and other confederate figures.
The reality is that the United States of America back then declared him and other veterans of the Confederacy ; traitors. It was subsequently changed in order to bring the country back together. Then, also he was stripped of his citizenship. Were you aware of that?
That's why I mentioned President Mckinley because as Confederate veterans fought in the Spanish American war…
I was just asking you whether you were aware.
All right, but the word you use, traitor. I can't speak to that other than people thought differently then.
And West asked Creighton about the public input into crafting the Senate bill.
Let me tell you, we had a very robust and thorough hearing in my opinion.
This was the same hearing where someone that was real passionate about the Confederacy, he used the n-word. Is that same hearing?
That's the hearing. Yes. And I sent a letter to that individual's house. I've never done it. In 12 years of being in the legislature. I sent a letter to that individual denouncing that rhetoric and telling him…
Was that person thrown out of the hearing?
That the person was the last person, from my understanding, to testify and I believe Senator Zaffirini had the gavel at the time and excused him. Right then.
Creighton's description of that event could use some clarification. In the April 11th hearing in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development, Charles Coppage testified in favor of Senate bill 1663 as he spoke, he was dressed in a Confederate officer's hat, overcoat and gloves. After using the n-word, Coppage was not gaveled out and the hearing continued as if nothing had happened.
The city I grew up in is Lewisville. That name was changed. I graduated in 85. It's a terrible name. I hate to say it, but it used to be called “n-word”-ville.
Thank you, sir but your time is up. I’m sorry.
They changed it and it's a good thing. It's a good thing to change some things that should be changed.
The Senate passed SB 1663 along straight party lines.
Why do these monuments stirrers such deep feelings and sometimes even violence when they're presence is threatened. University of Texas law professor, Sanford Levinson, wrote about it in the book Written in Stone: Public monuments in changing societies.
All public monuments, and by public monuments, I really referring especially to work in my book, I call sacred space in front of the state capitals that almost always they are assertions of power either by existing or by upcoming new movements. You know, so you can go through cities and states across the country with sometimes wildly different sorts of monuments. But if we're talking particularly about Confederate monuments, they are assertions of power, particularly at the turn of the 20th century when these monuments were built, we're not talking, none of these monuments goes back to 1870 or 1880. They're almost always 1890 through, 1910 and they are assertions of white supremacists to want to really announce that they're in control and that the collective heroes, and this will be taught in public schools because it is part of civic education. The collective heroes will be people like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
So when we hear defenders of these civil war monuments tell us this is about history and preserving history, then we're actually, what we're getting is this intellectual shell game where they're trying to hide the fact that this is about power and oppression, particularly against a class of people who no longer are powerless.
I would say that in a certain sense they're right that it's about preserving history, but you have to realize that history is what successive generations want to tell about their own past so that it's who gets to control the historical narrative. And again, particularly with things like public monuments, these are always going to be implicated with exactly the kinds of politics you're talking about. But we shouldn't kid ourselves that there is some one true version of history floating in the sky that we can all agree on — that we're always going to be fighting about what the true history of the United States or any other country is. And it will always be the case that depending on your own politics, your own group identifications or whatever, you know, if you're native American, you're going to have likely a very different take on the importance of understanding the conquest and in some case than the near genocidal conquest of American Indian tribes by European settlers, which until very recently was left out of most American history. I think there is a reason that academics often write about the history wars or you know, if he write about say, the history of social studies teaching in the United States, you discover that they're always, you know, Texas textbooks are a wonderful illustration for this. There are always going to be real fights over textbooks and who gets to mold the minds of the next generation. That just comes to the territory.
In your book, you write about these monuments in a changing society. History is not static and inert nor is society. Society changes. What we saw in Iraq when the United States invaded and there was the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue. People celebrated because it was a person who was in power being yanked off the pedestal. Here we are in Texas and we're having this debate about who has the authority to remove statues and under what circumstances this is about power. And the reason why people are fighting so hard to preserve these monuments is because they don't want to lose their power.
If you lose these fights, it becomes such a visible manifestation of the loss of power. But you're absolutely right, the way you're describing it, that, to put it mildly, we weren't interested in the fact that there might've been some. There were Saddam loyalists who objected to destruction of the monument and there were communists in Hungary in 1956 who might've objected to taking down the monuments of Stalin, which were symbols of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. That was then crushed by the Soviet Union. What you said is absolutely correct about the way that the struggles over public monuments are struggles over power and who gets to call the tune.
When you visit the westside of San Antonio, you come to understand the pride of those who live there. It’s a place rich in pride—pride in culture, tradition, and perhaps most of all, pride in their stories.
Texas Public Radio contributor Yvette Benavides, offers her review of a collection of these stories found in the book, “Still Here: Homenaje al Westside de San Antonio,” published by the Esperanza Press.
Still Here: Homenaje al Westside de San Antonio is an homage to this rich and unique part of our city and comes to us via oral history and song in a beautiful coffee-table tome with a CD of a dozen tracks by musical luminaries. The book features the stories of twelve beloved elders (also known as “Corazones de Esperanza”) who share their memories--tales about love, and life on the Westside. Editor, Puerto Rican born Lourdes Perez composed music based on the stories and then called on musical favorites from the Westside to perform and record them.
She guides readers through this multisensory tour of the Westside and provides a braided history woven from the stories from these denizens—who are still here, have always been here, and won’t be forgotten as a consequence of the fickleness of time.
The issues of gentrification and the concomitant displacement of the people of the Westside have come through almost three decades of a sustained parry and dodge between the community and policies and programs.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has long been at the helm in these battles alongside other community groups and organizers. Their main tools are the gente, the people themselves—their art, their music sending messages forth, asserting that they, their stories, their voices matter in the panoply of a city that doesn’t always prioritize each neighborhood equitably.
The subjects of this book, “Still Here: Homenaje al Westside de San Antonio,” and the accompanying CD of music have been persistently encouraged by the Esperanza over the years to take their rightful place at the fore of the fight, the center of the stage, the mera mata, as it were, of space conscientiously cultivated by Graciela Sanchez, who helped found the Center in 1987 and continues to network for social justice, the environment, and community-based arts organizations and advocate for those affected by racism, sexism, media injustice, home and transphobia, and gentrification.
To characterize the accompanying cd of music and recitation as the pilón –an extra-- of this volume is to undermine the excellent quality and the richness of these recordings featuring such notable musical artists like Eva Ybarra, Flaco Jiménez, Blanca Rodiguez, Santiago Jiménez Jr. and the late great Calandria herself, Rita Vidaurri. A total of 10 piesas, composed and co-composed by Lourdes Perez herself round out the impressive stories-in-song, based on the oral histories contained in the book.
There isn’t a single piece in the book that doesn’t stand as the jewel in the crown. It’s impossible to pick a favorite. Here are some memorable lines translated from the Spanish from “Piedra por Piedra”: From my beloved family/I inherited the mischievousness/My father, stone by stone/With magic and masonry/Taught us to respect ourselves/And to love what is Mexican/To hold the head up high/And have honesty in the hands.” That particular piece ends with : “the tablecloths and the little jars/That adorned our house/Treasure the memoires/ Of a well lived life/The world may be beautiful /But nothing compares/with all that we have/In our Mexican Land.”
The texts of each of the stories here reflect the original storytelling and preserve the individual voice, down to the regional features of the speakers’ dialects. And though the interviews are preserved on video and audio for archival purposes, here is this volume of pictures and stories and song, celebrating cultural values and traditions, speaking truth to power, conjuring up the past, reminding us that the future can be as hopeful, the struggle as worthwhile, affirming that San Antonio’s vital and vibrant Westside is, most decidedly, still here.
“Still Here: Homenaje al Westside de San Antonio” is published by the Esperanza Press through the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. The book is edited by Lourdes Perez, a United States Artists Music Fellow who has released 11 albums.
Texas Public Radio Contributor Yvette Benavides is a professor of creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University.