Dr. Michael Phillips is a historian and author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001.
Since December 2015, America has witnessed a tale of two cities and two mayors.
One mayor educated himself about the racist history of Confederate monuments in his city and led the charge to remove them. Despite insults and threats, he persevered, and the monuments are gone.
The mayor of another Southern city at first spoke out against Confederate monuments. Then he reversed course and in attempting appeasement has alienated almost everyone.
One of these men is New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The other is Mike Rawlings of Dallas. Landrieu will receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in May. Rawlings won't.
Landrieu’s new book is In the Shadow of the Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. He explains how he grew up in New Orleans, oblivious to the racism behind the city’s monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, and a fourth monument erected in honor of the Battle of Liberty Place, celebrating the White League’s attempt to overthrow Louisiana’s Republican government in 1874.
Landrieu explains that in 2015, jazz composer Wynton Marsalis asked him to remove the Lee statue before New Orleans celebrated its tricentennial in 2018. Landrieu was startled, but he educated himself about the monuments’ racist origins.
In December 2015, the New Orleans City Council voted to remove them. Landrieu faced threats to his safety but didn’t waver, insisting that “we are not obligated to cave in to some nostalgia-coated idea that a statue is good because it is old. ... [T]hese were symbols of white supremacy put up for a particular reason.”
Rawlings’ actions have been noticeably less heroic. On Aug. 15, three days after a Neo-Nazi murdered anti-racism activist Heather Heyer after a pro-Confederate monument rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Rawlings called Dallas’ Confederate statues “symbols of injustice” and “dangerous totems” that “divide us versus unite us.”
On Sept. 6, the City Council declared that Confederate monuments and public places named after Confederate leaders “are against the public policy of the city of Dallas.” A statue of Robert E. Lee was removed, and its park was restored to its original name, Oak Lawn Park.
Soon, Rawlings’ resolve dissolved. At his prompting, the City Council decided to not act immediately to remove other racist tributes to the Confederate past from the Dallas landscape.
The council instead appointed a monuments task force that included members the clergy, artists, historic preservationists and others to make recommendations regarding the fate of the 60-foot Confederate War Memorial near the Dallas Convention Center, streets named after prominent Confederate leaders, and the various plaques, statues and murals at Fair Park that honor the Confederate slave republic. The council committed on Sept. 6 to act on the task force’s recommendations and, by Nov. 8, to “take any further action as needed” to cleanse the city of these racist icons.
Rawlings and the council decided that the further action would be to take no action. The monuments task force recommended a set of vigorous steps, including taking down the war memorial, renaming five streets that honor Confederate military officers — Lee Parkway, Cabell Drive, Gano Street, Stonewall Street and Beauregard Drive — and creating a memorial to Allen Brooks, an African American murdered by a lynch mob in downtown Dallas in 1910. Once more, however, the council adopted momentum-killing delaying tactics.
The council tossed the issue to city staff, which was asked to create a new set of recommendations and calculate a price tag for their implementation. On March 21, the City Council finally received a set of craven suggestions that would leave Dallas a metaphorical capital of the neo-Confederacy.
Among the proposals is keeping the grotesque, decaying 60-foot glorification of slavery and secession, the Confederate War Memorial next to the Kay Bailey Huchison Convention Center. That memorial includes a statue of Jefferson Davis, who as Confederate president responded to Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation by issuing an executive order that equated African Americans in the Union Army with rebellious slaves. Davis’ order was understood as a death sentence for captured black Union soldiers.
Davis ordered any black prisoners of war turned over to “the respective states to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said states.” Confederate states regarded slave insurrection as a capital crime. From Nat Turner to John Brown to Patrick Jennings, Sam Smith and “Cato” (three slaves accused of deliberately setting Dallas on fire in 1860), slave rebels and their white allies died on the gallows. Davis’ order was never implemented, but only because the U.S. government responded by threatening to suspend all prisoner exchanges.
In numerous incidents, however, Confederate soldiers massacred black prisoners of war after Davis’ order, including troops under the command of William Cabell at Poison Spring, Arkansas, on April 18, 1864. If the council follows city staff’s recommendations, the city will continue to have a street named after Cabell, a war criminal later elected Dallas mayor three times.
Dallas city staff suggested placing plaques at the Confederate War Memorial for so-called “context.” But these would be inconspicuous near the six-story behemoth. In any case, no plaque there, or alongside any Confederate icon, could be large enough to explain:
- Southern slavery’s cruelty
- “Secession ordinances” that proclaimed preservation of slavery the chief reason for secession
- The monuments’ erection in an era when African Americans were denied the vote and input on monuments
- The monuments’ appearance at the height of lynching
- The fact that most monuments, including Dallas’ Confederate War Memorial, were the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which sponsored student essay contests on topics such as the happiness of life on slave plantations and the heroic role of the Ku Klux Klan in saving the South from “negro rule.”
Regardless of the dubious merits of plaques, Rawlings ignores the fact that the staff’s recommendations violate both the spirit and the letter of the Sept. 6 resolution that declared the monuments “against the public policy of the city of Dallas.” This extraordinary flip-flop can only be seen as inspired by convenience rather than principle.
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Some council members objected March 21 to the $280,000 cost of taking down the Confederate War Memorial — less than a quarter per resident and significantly less than the $400,000 in discounts and subsidies the city gave the National Rifle Association to host its annual convention in Dallas.
The issue is not money, but morality. African-American parents should not have to explain to their children why their hometown honors men who fought to preserve slavery. The city badly needs the ethical clarity on this issue that Landrieu provided New Orleans.
“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity,” he said. “It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”
Rawlings should follow Landrieu’s example.