On Sept. 6, when the Dallas City Council sat to consider bringing down the city’s 81-year-old equestrian monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, slavery and the American Civil War flowed into the moment as if yesterday and today were one.
A packed council chamber was alternately raucous and respectful as dozens of public speakers urged both positions — tear it down, leave it up. The house fell silent when the Rev. Gerald Britt, former pastor of New Mount Moriah Baptist Church, spoke to the council in a tightly controlled rumble.
"This is no academic argument to me,” he said, warming gradually. “It is not one about which I can be dispassionate. I cannot nor should I be asked to see both sides.
“My fourth grandmother came to this state from Georgia as a slave in 1850, having given birth to her white master's two children. She is buried in Jones, Texas, with a weather-beaten stone used as a marker to show us where her remains lie. So it is personal to me when I see monuments erected to the memories of men who fought to maintain this monstrosity of an institution in perpetuity.
“When I read upon those monuments and statues that extol their ‘virtue,’ their ‘valor,’ their ‘bravery’ and their ‘courage,’ I find it odd that those who say those statues should remain say I want to rewrite history. We are not trying to rewrite history. We're trying to redeem history.”
When Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings spoke, he spoke of what’s going on in the nation right now.
“The reason really is because of Charlottesville, [Virginia]” he said. "When I saw those hundreds of white men with torches parading around and what happened the day following, I realized that something as innocuous as a piece of stone can be turned into a thing that bad people worship, and I didn’t want any part of it.”
On Aug. 13, violence among white nationalist marchers protesting the removal of a Lee statue in Charlottesville left one woman dead when a nationalist sympathizer rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters.
Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, a conservative from an affluent, mostly white part of the city, gave one of the more affecting speeches of the day at Dallas’ City Council chamber. Her father is revered former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, now a major real estate developer.
Gates bristled when a speaker who wanted the statue left in place tried to equate Robert E. Lee with Gates’ father (something about both being heroes who graduated from military academies). She assured the audience that both of her parents taught their children early not to be racists.
Then Gates explained her evolution on why the Lee statue, a fine equestrian work by a nationally respected artist atop a prominence in an affluent high-rise residential neighborhood, needed to be pulled down.
“When this came up initially, my first question was why the timing?" she said. "Why did we bring it up at this time? What ... motivation behind it? Was this being done for a political motivation?
“When I sat down and educated myself on the history and the origin of some of these monuments in our public spaces that are supposed to be welcoming for all, I came to the conclusion that the Robert E. Lee statue was a monument to the discriminatory practices of the past.”
The Lee monument went up in 1936, when the city was crawling out of an era of brutal Ku Klux Klan control. Across the former Confederacy, some mechanisms of racist control were already under attack in the courts, especially the use of racial deed restrictions to enforce housing segregation. Dallas’ Lee memorial, like similar Confederate monuments put up across the South around the same time, was the expression of an imposing public vow. It said that no matter what the Yankee courts might decide, Dixie would always be Dixie.
Gates echoed the mayor. She said the vow that the statue expressed in 1936 has been appropriated by a new breed of exponents of hatred. She called the statue “a symbol of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
“That was the reason that I came to the conclusion that this statue needed to come down,” she said.
A clear moral statement
Council member Philip Kingston, in whose district the monument stands, launched the effort to bring the issue to the City Council. He proposed that the council make a clear moral statement condemning the principles expressed by all of the city’s Confederate monuments, most of which went up during the 20th century era of Jim Crow segregation.
The mayor and the city’s four black council members initially opposed Kingston's argument. They called instead for the creation of a task force to debate the city’s position on Confederate monuments.
City Council member Dwaine Caraway, who is black, said he opposed Kingston’s resolution because Kingston had failed to consult the four black council members first and because Kingston’s resolution falsely linked African-Americans with slavery. Caraway offered a long, complicated argument about racial terminology, culminating with his insistence that only Africans were slaves.
Kingston says Caraway’s version of events is not true. He insists that he did go to Caraway first and that Caraway told him he didn’t care about the Confederate monuments. Regardless, Kingston’s basic proposal — that the City Council state its moral condemnation of the Confederate relics — eventually carried the day, but only after a major push from the public.
On the evening of Aug. 19, between 2,000 and 3,000 demonstrators gathered at City Hall in an endorsement of Kingston’s call for moral condemnation. Early the next week, the mayor and the black council members came around to a watered-down version of Kingston’s position: take the Lee statue down immediately, let an appointed commission decide later what to do with the rest of the city’s Confederate monuments. (A Confederate War memorial in Pioneer Park on Young Street includes statues of Lee, Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.)
A major part of their effort, both in announcing the shift in their position and later in remarks made before the council vote, was to deny any credit to Kingston, who is a likely future candidate for mayor. This was a very small window on the pettiness of City Hall politics, but beyond it lurked a bigger more painful window on traditional black culture in old South Dallas.
From early days through the 1970s, most of elected black leadership in Dallas has been ultraconservative on racial and civil rights issues, even turning its back on the national civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Afro-centric cultural revival. In an interview a day before the Lee vote, Caraway expressed the contemporary stance.
“Kingston’s resolution starts off by saying African-Americans were enslaved for over 400 years,” he said. “I am African-American. I have never been in slavery.
“African-Americans were never in slavery. Who were enslaved were enslaved Africans.”
Caraway said the resolution presented to the council under the names of three black council members (not including the newly elected Kevin Felder) got the history right while Kingston got it wrong. He said of Kingston’s earlier resolution: “It tells you right there that some white guy must have wrote it, and black people wrote this one.”
“The important part of this process was to set a high moral standard," Kingston said the day of the vote. "We do not need a task force to tell us right from wrong. We are capable moral leaders.”
He echoed Britt's statement about the erasure of history.
“These monuments,” Kingston said, “represent a false telling of history. There is no erasing of history. There is really a correction of history today.”
A recurring theme from people seeking removal was what they had been seeing in the news lately — the appropriation of hoary Confederate symbols by the violent racist and neo-Nazi movement of today. It was almost as if the monuments could have slumbered on in dust and silence for decades, forgotten and ignored, if white supremacists had not adopted them as their own imprimatur.
“As a member of the Jewish community, I am very concerned with the close association of neo-Nazism with the Confederate symbols," said Linda Abramson Evans, a well-known Dallas activist on refugee issues.
“My concern extends to my refugee and immigrant neighbors," she said. "I have never seen such fear since 9/11 among people who are a part of our community. After the University of Virginia, they are wondering: Could this happen here?
“As an educator, I would never advocate for destroying or even defacing these relics, but I do ask you to remove them from positions of prominence.”
John Fullinwider is a prominent longtime community activist on civil rights issues.
“This resolution, with its strong statement that the public display of these monuments is against City Hall policy, with its implementation task force and with its provision for the immediate removal of the Robert Lee statue, is a gift to the city of Dallas," he said.
“It is a gift to the young people of this city who deserve to grow up in a public landscape that affirms their full humanity and is not bound by the mythology and romanticism that still surrounds the Confederacy in this country.
“The people like me who want to remove these monuments, we are not erasing history. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We are making a claim on the future, and we want that to be one that is not bound by the delusions of white supremacy and the way they play out in the current city.”
Some of the strongest proof that the removers were right came from opponents of removal.
“Removing these monuments will not alter our race hatred," John Clay told the council.
“The South fought for constitutional principles such as states’ rights,” he said. “All the South has ever desired was that the union as established by our forefathers should be preserved and that this government as originally organized should be administered in purity and truth.
“Removal of these monuments will not change the fact that the wrong side won.”
Dick Zinnendorf visits right-wing websites to call people “tools of the Israeli mafia” and “stooges of the globalists.”
“I don’t care about the statues either way," he told the council. "There is a mural of Lee Harvey Oswald on private property at Madison and Seventh Street in Oak Cliff. If the left is serious about having moral authority to take down the statues of a Confederate general, where is the outcry about a mural of a criminal like Oswald?
“Will the Jewish community, will Linda Abramson Evans and John Fullinwider stand up and talk about Lee Harvey Oswald’s mural up in Oak Cliff? Where is the outcry there? You see a double standard there, right? A big one. A big one.”
Zinnendorf’s speech won strong applause from one portion of the audience, groans and sighs from the other.
And then there were the public speakers whose words seemed to miss both sides of the argument, falling instead into a muddle in the middle. Meticulously avoiding any mention of history or morality, some speakers said their gravest concern and worry was that the proper bureaucratic process be observed.
One of these speakers was Buddy Apple, spokesman for Preservation Dallas, an organization purported to be a font of wisdom on local history.
“Preservation Dallas fully supports the mayuor’s task force on Confederate monuments to provide a process that will thoughtfully consider and determine the future of each monument individually,” said Apple, a member of the organization's board of directors.
“We believe that this process shouldn’t be hastened before conversations can take place and the task force has had time to make recommendations.”
Apple found fault with the resolution to remove the Lee statue, which he called “broad in scope and nature.”
“We would urge the council to consider its potential impact on other sites in Dallas, including Fair Park, which we consider to be totally separate ... a national historic landmark, one of two in the city of Dallas,” he said.
Fair Park is home to two Confederate memorials, the most striking of which is a tall, muscular, crowned woman with cantaloupe breasts and prominent nipples protruding from beneath heavy robes. A bit walleyed, perhaps from grit, she wields above her head what could be an art deco rendering of a whip. She is called Confederacy.
Hurry up and wait
The City Council eventually voted to bring down the Lee statue immediately, then allow the mayor’s commission to figure out what to do with dozens of other Confederate artifacts salted around the city in statuary, plaques, school and street names, and random other reminders. Only one council member, Sandy Greyson of North Dallas, voted against the resolution, citing first the will of her constituents and later her grave concern for the proper bureaucratic process.
Two miles north of City Hall, at almost the moment the council voted, a crane appeared over the statue in Lee Park, and straps were attached with the purpose of abruptly whisking the 6-ton monument away, at a price tag of around $500,000. With police looking on, some in riot gear, a crew began drilling and prying away at the statue in a mostly unsuccessful, frustrating attempt to free it from an anchoring system in its massive stone-faced plinth.
A crowd of about 200 onlookers gathered behind barricades to witness what they wrongly assumed would be the monument’s final moments. Broadcast trucks pulled up. Cellphones were held high. Emotions were decidedly mixed.
"My husband is a history buff, and he couldn't make it," Karen Johnson said. "I drove in from Mansfield just in case."
Like many others at the park, Johnson didn't want Confederate statues removed, but she didn't have a huge problem seeing them placed in a history museum, either. The only thing she was worried about, she said, was the potential for a slippery slope should the city decide to rename parks and streets named after Confederate figures.
"I would like it to stay because it's beautiful," she said.
Ginger Bellamy, a frequent visitor to Lee Park who has attended its annual pet parade, took issue with those who think the statue is worthwhile public art.
"Germany doesn't have a lot of Hitler statues. Adolf's not a popular name," she said. "Dallas is such a segregated city, and it's sitting here in a neighborhood where Highland Parkies come to retire. To me, it's just a monument to white privilege.”
Beth Biesel, a member of the leadership team of the Park Cities-Preston Hollow Leadership Forum, complained that those who signed up to speak to City Council were given only one minute each to express their opinions. She believes the plan to remove the statue was made before the vote — and it clearly was.
"They brought us in,” Biesel said. “They give us one minute, and it's a farce. It's a sham. It's a kangaroo court."
"This won't stop," she warned. "There's no unity in this. … The City Council is not my moral leader. Their job is not to pronounce morality on people."
She said the debate is about more than just a statue.
"It's about destroying the United States Constitution and the United States as a country," Biesel said. "There's a force that wants to destroy us, and they're just chipping away. You destroy the man sitting on that horse, and you destroy the ideas he contributed to the greater cause."
Caraway made a brief appearance at the statue before heading back to City Hall for the afternoon's continued City Council session on other city business. Removing the statue immediately was imperative, he said, to keep Dallas police safe by stopping further protests against such monuments.
"We do not need to revisit something that happened a year ago," Caraway said, "because there would be more rallies. More rallies means folks within our police department would be at risk. ... Now we can go and concentrate and let the task force do their work."
But Caraway’s wish for the general to make a speedy exit stage left was not to be. The first crane, deemed to be too small, was replaced by a bigger one. Holes were drilled, to no avail. Much tugging, yanking and whacking took place. Then suddenly, with Lee and escort still firmly in their saddles, work was halted. A voice came through the crowd announcing that a judge had ordered the project stopped in its tracks. And a kind of legal tragic comedy ensued.
The far right goes to court
The scenario most feared by the mayor and City Council — an intrusion into the local issue by the national white supremacy movement — seemed to be taking place. Kirk Lyons, a lawyer in North Carolina whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has linked to numerous hate groups, persuaded Hiram Patterson, a Dallas Confederate history buff, to put his name on a complaint asking a court to stop the removal. Federal Judge Sidney Fitzwater of the Northern District of Texas granted a last-minute temporary restraining order.
Patterson, whose signature was on the complaint, had agreed to sign it sight unseen.
“It was a very last-minute thing that the injunction was done and delivered,” he said hours after the removal was halted. “I haven’t had much time to read anything.”
Patterson, a safety manager for a dental school, is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which the SPLC, a nonprofit that monitors hate groups, does not include on its list. The SCV claims a friendly relationship with a parallel northern group, the Sons of Union Veterans. The SUV refers to the SCV as “our Confederate cousins.”
Lyons, the lawyer in North Carolina who wrote the complaint, is the topic of a long and lurid sheet maintained by the SPLC. An SPLC report about Lyons and the group he co-founded, the Southern Legal Resource Center, says, “controversy has dogged the SLRC because of Lyons' extensive extremist background, which includes his infamous wedding at the Aryan Nations compound in a ceremony officiated by longtime Aryan Nations leader and Christian Identity preacher, Richard Butler.”
Patterson said he knew nothing about Lyons. “Oh, I have no knowledge of this person,” he said. “I have never met him. Never heard of him before today.”
He said a member of SCV called him the morning of the council vote and asked him to put his name on the complaint.
“I went to work this morning, and Mr. Mark Brown, who is a member our local Sons of Confederate Veterans group who’s in charge of the emails and likes history and collects history, things like that, he said that they were going to file an injunction against the city of Dallas to prevent them from taking down the monument," Patterson said.
“Since the SCV as an organization could not be a complainant, he said that they really needed someone who lives in Dallas to do that. So I volunteered to do that.”
The complaint signed by Patterson turned upside down the arguments at City Council in favor of keeping Lee horsed. Except for the pure bureaucratic process worriers, most defenders of the statue insisted it honors only something called legacy and says nothing about slavery or the rebellion of the Southern states against the United States of America.
The complaint said the opposite. It made a First Amendment freedom-of-speech argument based on the contention that the statue says the very things that the City Council found objectionable with its vote.
“The Confederate monument was erected to express a controversial political opinion,” the compliant stated. “The city’s plan to remove the monument in a matter of hours is an imminent and unconstitutional attempt to curtail free speech by ordaining what mute political symbols must mean. The city’s planned suppression of the monument’s political speech is a first step in a totalitarian move to determine authorized forms of political communication and to punish unauthorized political speech.”
Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law and a prominent commentator on First Amendment issues, quickly knocked apart the free-speech argument. He said that while there might be other issues not addressed in the complaint, such as ownership of the park or ownership of the statue, the First Amendment argument alone didn’t have staying power.
“My conclusion,” Carpenter said Sept. 7, the day after the complaint was filed, “is that the First Amendment claim as it stands is meritless. It is true, as the complaint argues, that the government cannot pick and choose ideas that it likes and allow only those ideas to be expressed. That is true.
“However, as I understand in this case, this is a city-owned park and a city-owned statue,” he said, which means the city has the right to keep or remove the statue and any speech or message implied by the statue.
“The statue is what the court would call government speech. It’s the government’s own speech," he said. "The government can discriminate on the basis of viewpoint when it’s the government itself that is speaking.
“It would be a different thing if someone put up a statue of Robert E. Lee in their backyard or even in their front yard, and the government said, ‘We’re going to remove all statues of Robert E. Lee on people’s private property because we regard those as objectionable.'”
Hours after Carpenter spoke, Fitzwater tossed the complaint and withdrew his restraining order.
Still in the saddle
All that afternoon and into the evening, then again at dawn Sept. 8, news crews gathered at the barricades in Lee Park. Police sat in parked patrol cars at a discreet distance. But no crane appeared.
Shortly before noon, Michael Van Enter, an art conservator hired by the city to oversee the removal, said that the city appeared to be having trouble finding a crane operator willing to take on the job. He said he was told that most of the heavy machinery in the state had been pulled south to Houston for hurricane recovery. That explanation, of course, did not account for how the city was able to hire two cranes earlier in the week.
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Van Enter said it was his understanding the statue would not be removed that day and he was pulling his own crew off the site to wait for further instructions from the city.
Gay Donnell, president and CEO of the Arlington Hall and Lee Park Conservancy, said the hall adjacent to the statue, a replica two-thirds the size of Lee’s Virginia home, was booked the morning of Sept. 9 for a long-established annual gathering of a black church and later in the day for a wedding. She said she had asked the city not to have a large crane or wrecking crew appear during either event.
On Sunday evening, the saga took a sad and lugubrious turn when a crane operator, dispatched to carry out a stealthy removal during a Dallas Cowboys game, was struck in traffic on his way to the site by a semitractor driver. Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax said the truck driver apparently ran a red light. He died. The crane operator was unhurt, but the crane was wrecked. Broadnax said removal was on hold while the city sent condolences to the family of the deceased man.
And so the general and his loyal enlisted escort rode on into the new week, voted down, abandoned by the courts, battered by hammers and drills, insulted by straps and cranes, now with a death on their heels but still tall in their saddles, unbowed as yet.