Education

State Rep. Hopes to Abolish Confederate Heroes Day as an Official State Holiday

The Texas African American History Memorial stands in front of the Texas State Capitol in Austin. A state representative wants to abolish Confederate Heroes Day, which is an official state holiday in Texas.
The Texas African American History Memorial stands in front of the Texas State Capitol in Austin. A state representative wants to abolish Confederate Heroes Day, which is an official state holiday in Texas. Getty Images
State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, announced  on Wednesday morning a new bill, House Bill 51, that aims to abolish Confederate Heroes Day as an official Texas state holiday. The occasion, established in 1973, falls annually on Jan. 19, which is also Robert E. Lee’s birthday, a state holiday established in 1931. In his opening remarks at a press conference, Johnson said this is the third time he has filed such a bill.

Confederate Heroes Day is a partial holiday for state employees, which means offices are still open but someone employed by a state agency can still get paid to take a day off to honor those who fought and died for the Southern states during the Civil War.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day also happens to sometimes fall on Jan. 19. That’s not an insignificant point. The Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday, first observed in 1986, falls on the third Monday of January. A 2020 Texas Monthly article reports that Confederate Heroes Day was created in Texas during the course of a sort of battle between lawmakers seeking to recognize Confederate luminaries such as Lee and Jefferson Davis, neither of whom were native Texans, and King.

“Webster's definition of a hero is someone who is admired and idolized for courage, outstanding achievement and noble qualities,” Johnson said. “I asked a lot of my staff members and even a lot of children what they thought a hero was and more times than not, they said a hero was someone who did something for someone other than themselves, someone who sacrificed for someone else. Confederate Heroes Day is a remembrance of a horrible past.”

Johnson preemptively addressed some of the arguments opponents of this bill have raised, and likely will raise again, should the bill make it out of committee.

“There are those who will say that this [bill] is revisionist history, that this day is simply a reminder of their culture, a reminder of their heritage,” he said. “I’ll tell you about culture and heritage: The Confederacy is also my culture and my heritage. My great-great-great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy as a slave owner. That same man is the man that raped my great-great-great-grandmother.”

Because Confederate Heroes Day is a state-sanctioned date honoring a specific segment of the population, Johnson also connected his bill with the ongoing public debate around the topic of Critical Race Theory in schools.

“This is a holiday that, every year, puts the emotional and mental stability of Black students at risk.” – State Rep. Jarvis Johnson

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“If we care so much, as Republicans often say they do, about CRT and how it puts white students in uncomfortable situations when race relations from before they were around are brought up, I challenge my colleagues to keep the same energy here,” he told the Observer by phone from his Capitol office on Wednesday after his press conference. “This is a holiday that, every year, puts the emotional and mental stability of Black students at risk.”

Texas Democrat Sen. Nathan Johnson of Dallas was one of the lawmakers who joined Rep. Johnson during the press conference. During his remarks, Sen. Johnson said that the state having an official holiday honoring the Confederacy “makes me feel sick,” before asking rhetorically, “who would pass this piece of garbage today?”

Sen. Nathan Johnson didn’t stop there, adding: “This isn’t about the definition of hero, if you want to go there. To some people, if you’re in the military and you die, you’re a hero. Should Germany make a hero out of every fallen Nazi soldier? Should Britain make a hero out of every soldier who committed atrocities in India? I can go on and on.”

The fact that he has filed this bill three times does not discourage Rep. Jarvis Johnson. He says it’s just a part of how things tend to go in an always packed legislative session.

“We file bills a number of times because sometimes it's just not the right time for a bill, or there just isn't the right energy at a certain time,” he said. “And when you’re a freshman, you don't always know how to work your bills. The first time I ever filed a bill we didn't get any media attention like we’re getting now. It’s really about being in the right place at the right time.”

The representative feels more positive about this being the moment for his bill. As awareness about the conflicting calendar dates and the ideals of Confederate Heroes Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day builds, Rep. Johnson thinks pressure on top officials, such as the governor, will be hard to ignore.

“The state wants to heal,” he said. “I’ve talked to many of my Republican colleagues, and if they want to be the party of Lincoln, as they tout, then you can’t be a Confederate sympathizer. If you want to continue to advance, then you can't keep an ideology around that is harmful and divisive.”
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Kelly Dearmore

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