The Battle Over 'Forget the Alamo' Deepens Texas' Raging Culture War

The authors of "Forget the Alamo" are facing considerable blowback from Texas Republicans.
The authors of "Forget the Alamo" are facing considerable blowback from Texas Republicans. Renelibrary (Rene Gomez), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The book's previous promotional events sometimes attracted around 50 people, but this one was going to be big. More than 300 had already reserved their spots for the Bullock Texas State History Museum's virtual discussion on July 1. The work being showcased had an eye-catching title: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth.

Writers Chris Tomlinson and Bryan Burrough were scheduled to speak and they, along with co-author Jason Stanford, had diligently worked on the book. The trio figured not everyone would be a fan of their new effort, which investigates the role slavery played in the Texas revolt. Still, they wanted to deliver readers the unembellished truth behind the Alamo's legend, and they were excited for such a large crowd.

But ahead of the discussion, social media users and members of the museum’s board — on which the Republican governor and lieutenant governor sit — began pressuring the Bullock to pull the plug. The authors say they were assured the museum wouldn’t nix their talk. But with less than four hours before showtime, they learned it had done just that.

“My first reaction was one of deep embarrassment because being a proud Texan occasionally requires a tolerance for humiliation for being governed by people like this,” Stanford said by phone five days later. “It didn’t occur to me until much later to get angry about being kicked out of a virtual public space because our opinions weren’t deemed acceptable.”

When they learned of the cancellation, the authors began tweeting about becoming targets of Texas Republicans’ burgeoning culture war. It’s the latest skirmish pitting conservative politicians against vetted historians, amplifying alarm among those who fear the GOP is out to whitewash a history imbued with racism. First, it was The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Then, it was critical race theory. Now, this.

During the state’s 87th Legislative session, conservative lawmakers worked to limit the ways current events and race relations are taught in the classroom. Meanwhile, some Texas Republicans have placed specific historians in their crosshairs, with one Collin College professor accusing state Rep. Jeff Leach of working behind the scenes to get her fired. (Her contract was later terminated.)

In the case of Forget the Alamo, though, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick openly intervened, taking credit on social media for having directed museum staff to cancel the event. Yet Stanford believes the move has ultimately backfired: Afterward, the book soared on Amazon’s sales rank from the 500s to as high as 17.
The way Stanford tells it, none of this would have happened had the state’s GOP just let them talk. “I’m not sure they accomplished what they set out to do,” he said. “Instead of 300 people hearing Chris and Bryan talk for an hour, I think it’s safe to say that there are probably 10,000 people who bought the book who otherwise would not have.”

Forget the Alamo explores several myths that other historians had already debunked years prior, Stanford said. There was never a line in the sand. Davy Crockett didn’t go down swinging. Some historians say the book is so true it’s almost boring, he added.

Still, Stanford believes the state’s conservatives are so enamored by the Alamo self-sacrifice myth that they've placed it at the center of their Texan identity. Many of the book’s harshest critics may not even be fully cognizant of why they’re angry, he said. They've perhaps romanticized Hollywood icon John Wayne’s portrayal of Davy Crockett. And Christ-like stories resonate in Bible-thumping Texas. Much like the sacrificial lamb trope, many young Texans were taught that heroic Alamo defenders gave themselves so that others could live.

“I never expected to be silenced like this in my own country." – Chris Tomlinson, author

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Just as the book attracted controversy, so too did the event's cancellation. Soon, it had drawn widespread condemnation from free speech advocates and literary leaders, including from the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL), a nonprofit honor society celebrating Texas literature. Last week, TIL’s president wrote the museum’s board an excoriating missive defending the authors’ analysis of the Alamo myth.

Texas curriculum has long pushed the “Heroic Anglo Narrative,” resulting in xenophobia and racism against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the letter read. Meanwhile, the majority of Texas schoolchildren are Mexican-American. “The pursuit of the truth and a free discussion about Texas history have been cancelled in order to preserve state propaganda,” the letter continued. “This is happening not in Russia, or the old U.S.S.R., or in China or Iran, but in the great state of Texas.”

Texas Democrats also didn’t hold back their disdain for the museum’s move. Zack Malitz, treasurer of the liberal Boot Texas Republicans PAC, drew parallels to conservative pundits' attacks on "cultural Marxism" during the Tea Party wave a decade ago. The Bullock fiasco is yet another conflict in the broader culture war that’s intended to distract constituents from focusing on more pressing issues, Malitz said. The Republican Party of Texas has ignored the failing energy grid, as well as the fallout from the ever-raging coronavirus crisis.

“They don’t care about censoring a history museum or shutting down certain kinds of speech. What they care about is making sure their values are dominant,” he said. “It’s really infuriating to watch.”
As with many great ideas, Forget the Alamo was born over breakfast. Along with Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford were at JoAnn’s Fine Foods in Austin, enjoying breakfast tacos and pozole. It was May 2019, and the three were discussing the Alamo Plaza’s $450 million redevelopment plans, which Tomlinson, a writer for the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle, had covered in a column. What Tomlinson said next surprised his company: It would be wrong to spend half a billion dollars on a myth.

Stanford said neither he nor Burrough understood that the public school-sanctioned story of the Alamo isn’t what actually happened. Then Burrough, himself a New York Times best-selling author, slammed his hand on the table. That should be a book, he said, and soon he had come up with the title.

From there, Forget the Alamo was fast-tracked for publication. The authors pitched it on a Monday and by Tuesday afternoon, editors were expressing interest, Tomlinson said.

The writers knew the book would anger a certain segment of the Texas population. “We figured we would never see our book in the Alamo bookstore,” Tomlinson said. Others who braved to challenge the Alamo myth faced similar pushback; after he published Duel of Eagles more than three decades ago, protesters appeared outside author Jeff Long's house.

Even still, Tomlinson said they didn’t expect a government official like Patrick to so explicitly censor them. Shortly before claiming credit for the cancellation on Twitter, Patrick had sworn in a campaign fundraising email that he’d always safeguard Texans' First Amendment rights.

“Blowback was expected,” Tomlinson said. "Someone using the color of office to suppress us, that was the surprise.”

Afterward, Tomlinson himself took to Twitter to declare they’d been “BANNED at the BULLOCK MUSEUM!” The thread quickly went viral.
The Bullock Museum is a public institution that, by Texas statute, is supposed to have programming independent of its board of directors, Tomlinson later told me. Being a state history museum, it often hosts challenging, thought-provoking talks about state history. Supporters have remarked that Forget the Alamo should have fit right in.

The way Tomlinson sees it, the Bullock clearly violated the authors’ First Amendment rights and their right to due process. And while they’d hoped for an explanation from the Bullock’s executive director, as of last Tuesday, they still hadn’t gotten one.

Some may be tempted to laugh off the ordeal, but Tomlinson has real concerns about whether public universities can invite him to speak. Plus, he said, the Texas Book Festival will be held on Capitol grounds a few hundred yards away from the Bullock. Things could get a lot worse unless the GOP is forced to back down.

To Tomlinson, the state's Republican leaders are no longer being subtle: They’re now proudly censoring people for challenging their deeply held beliefs. Despite conservative lawmakers’ push to “impose an Orwellian world,” Tomlinson is willing to do everything he can to stop it.

“I spent 14 years covering nine wars, many of them in African dictatorships. I’ve been beaten — shot at — I’ve had a price put on my head,” he said. “I never expected to be silenced like this in my own country, and if Dan Patrick thinks he can intimidate me … he’s got another think coming.”

But while the authors are prepared to fight back against oppression, they wish they didn’t have to. “At some point,” Stanford said, “it would be real nice if it were OK to discuss state history in the state history museum again.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter