Battle over Texas confederate monuments heats up

Denton residents protest confederate symbols while elsewhere other monuments are still being erected.

Activists joined demonstrations in the summer heat at the front of a confederate monument in Texas [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
Activists joined demonstrations in the summer heat at the front of a confederate monument in Texas [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Denton, Texas, United States – When local civil rights activist Willie Hudspeth decided to call for the removal of a large confederate memorial in this northern Texas city in 1999, he was the sole campaigner.

“Back then, it was one person who came out here,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that in recent weeks, dozens of people have been protesting alongside him.

“Now a lot of people are coming out and protesting,” Hudspeth said.

The campaigning and criticism that followed  the  slaying of nine worshippers by a white gunman at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, led to the removal of  the Civil War-era confederate flag from state capitol grounds there .

Similar calls grew across the south, including in Texas, for confederate memorials to be taken down or moved from public areas to museums.

“When those nine people were killed in that church down in [South Carolina], that got the issue going again here in Denton,” said 69-year-old Hudspeth, who also serves as the president of the city’s local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Willie Hudspeth has been protesting the monument for the last 15 years  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

In  cities and towns across the state , including on the  state capitol grounds , more than a thousand monuments honour the soldiers who fought for the confederacy during the Civil War, according to the Texas Historical Association.

Critics argue that the monuments glorify the confederacy and that few, if any, mention the long and brutal history of slavery in the US.

During a protest in the town square on Saturday, dozens of local activists joined Hudspeth to demand that the Confederate Soldier Monument be moved to a nearby museum.

Made of granite marble and standing 3.7m tall, the memorial  was established by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1918 and is located on the Denton County courthouse grounds.

For Hudspeth and like-minded Dentonites, the two drinking fountains at the foot of the memorial symbolise racial segregation and intolerance [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

In addition to a confederate soldier standing atop the monument and an engraving of a eulogy for the confederacy, two water fountains are embedded in its pillars.

According to Hudspeth, the water fountains were segregated and marked for use by white people only, although  local media reports say that the Denton County Office for History and Culture has no record that the fountains were ever hooked up to a water supply.

“If the memorial is going to stay, we should at least add a plaque that says that only white people were allowed to drink from it,” Hudspeth argued.

“During Jim Crow times, no one could drink from these fountains but white people – not Native Americans, not black people, not Mexicans. As it is constructed here [presently] – high on the grounds of county property – it says to me that the country supports segregation,” said Hudspeth.

A new organisation, of which Hudspeth is a member, has been established to support this effort and ones like it. Dentonites Against Racist Traditions, which was founded following the killings in South Carolina, aims to create a plan of action for moving the confederate monument and other memorials they deem racist.

Local activists gathered in front of the Denton Municipal Court House to protest the Confederate Soldier Monument and demand its transfer to a museum  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Not everyone agrees.

Scott Campbell, a member of Denton’s Historic Landmark Association, counter-protested Saturday’s demonstration.
“Taking down the monument because of the awful killing in the church allows the killer to win,” he addressed the crowd.

Trey, a local firefighter who declined to provide his full name, also decried the prospect of moving the monument to a museum.

“I just think we’re becoming too politically correct,” he told Al Jazeera. “Everything seems to offend somebody.”

Both protesters and defenders brought their own signs for the demonstrations [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Yet, Mario Ovalle, a Denton-based social justice organiser, thinks confederate monuments in Denton and everywhere else should be taken down.

“The monuments from the Jim Crow era and the slave-holding south era are still up and they are not here to commemorate anyone – they glorify it,” he told Al Jazeera.

“If you want to commemorate anyone, commemorate the black slaves who were fighting for their freedom,” Ovalle said.

Local activist Christy Medrano said that several groups are working together to form coalitions and orchestrate a broader pushback that goes beyond the issue of confederate memorials.

She explained that there are numerous issues to tackle around racial justice.

“We’re definitely tackling police brutality more. Right now with the Black Lives Matter it’s a great moment to build not just a local or nationwide, but a global anti-racism movement,” Medrano told Al Jazeera.

Activists challenged the notion of ‘commemorating history’ put forth by defenders of this monument and ones like it [ Shaghayegh Tajvidi /Al Jazeera]

In recent weeks confederate monuments in Denton and elsewhere have been targeted by vandals.

Denton’s monument was defaced with bright red spray paint on July 20.  “This is racist,” the graffiti read.

At a protest for its removal later that day, Hudspeth and other activists  were confronted by a rifle-yielding man, who eventually left after handing his ammunition over to police officers.

“I could see the hatred and rage in his eyes,” Hudspeth recalled. “He starts hollering at me and he has this weapon on his shoulder and gets to flailing it around.”

Just two weeks earlier in nearby Dallas, a statue of Robert E Lee – the general who commanded the Confederate Army of Virginia during the Civil War – was tagged with a single word: “Shame”.

On campus at the University of Texas at Austin,  similar statues were also defaced.

Tensions were high between monument defenders and protesters [Shaghayegh Tajvidi /Al Jazeera]

Though few politicians have publicly protested against the confederate statues and monuments, five Democratic state lawmakers  recently penned a letter to Governor Greg Abbott and requested that he reconsider the presence of such structures on the state capitol’s grounds.

“As these debates play out across our country and state, we ask you to consider the Texas Capitol itself: the building in which we have the honour of working on behalf of all Texans,” the letter reads, adding that many of the statues “espouse a whitewashed version of history”.

Yet, even as voices come out in favour of removing confederate monuments, more are being built.

Funded by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a new Civil War monument flying 32 confederate flags is  being erected on the side of a main interstate connecting Louisiana to Orange, Texas.

Elsewhere, in Austin, the SCV plans to build a three-metre tall obelisk to honour some 450 confederate soldiers in a city-owned cemetery.

Many of the protesters expressed solidarity with the growing Black Lives Matter movement [ Shaghayegh Tajvidi /Al Jazeera]

Back in Denton, Willie Hudspeth plans to protest every week until the memorial is taken down. He and other speakers asked local officials to move it during a city council meeting on Tuesday, though it is unclear if the city has made a decision. 

“We have to find a way to get along with each other. Even our churches here are segregated,” he said.

“When we get to heaven, is it going to be segregated? I don’t know, but if it is I don’t want to be there.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source : Al Jazeera


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