The Texas Capitol's Confederate memorial problem

In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, the fate of the statues and other emblems commemorating the ostensible heroes of the Confederacy is still roiling the nation. In Texas, the debate has largely centered on the University of Texas at Austin, where an effort to remove a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis is gaining steam.

But the debate — as important as it may be, especially to those of us affiliated with UT-Austin — won’t likely stop with the university. The true elephant in the room is the grounds of the Texas Capitol, which contain a handful of memorials to those who fought for the Confederacy. The most prominent is the monument to the Confederate war dead on the Capitol’s south grounds. Installed in 1903, it depicts Davis standing atop a pedestal surrounded by several soldiers. The side of the monument reads:

Died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The people of the South, animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion. The South, against overwhelming numbers and resources, fought until exhausted.

The message perfectly captures the ideology of the so-called lost cause, as portrayed by apologists for the Confederacy then and now. Their cause had nothing to do with slavery, they say, and everything to do with the vindication of the Declaration of Independence and its commitment to the proposition that the only legitimate government was the one that acted with the “consent of the governed.” That no longer applied in Texas and 10 other states following the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and withdrawal “from the federal compact” was therefore appropriate, their argument goes. 

The Austin Statesman, covering the dedication of the statue on April 16, 1903, featured the speeches of former Gov. Francis Lubbock, a onetime aide to Davis, and the current governor at the time, S.W.T. Lanham. Lubbock, according to the newspaper account, was “delighted to see the grand work of commemorating the Confederacy.” Lanham, not to be outshone, “pointed directly at the statue of President Davis [sic], and eloquently exclaimed, ‘I salute thee!’” This brought forth a great roar of approval, the report continued, followed by Lanham’s threat to assault anyone who “abus[ed] President Davis or the noble cause he championed.” 

During the 2000 presidential primary season, then-Gov. George W. Bush entered the controversy over flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina Capitol by saying that it was the state’s business, not his — a position echoed recently by a current presidential candidate from Texas, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. In 2000, no one bothered to ask Bush what he thought about the monuments on his own state Capitol grounds — and 15 years later, as the controversy flares anew, no one is asking Cruz or former Gov. Rick Perry, one of Cruz’s 2016 rivals. No doubt they’re relieved that Texas doesn’t fly the Confederate battle flag or incorporate it as part of the state flag. But that doesn’t get them off the hook. 

As South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley put it, all citizens should feel equally welcome when entering the near-sacred grounds of their state capitol. She recognized that would never be the case so long as those opposed to the “noble cause” of perpetuating slavery — or even the principle of secession — were forced to confront a flag whose central meaning required accepting the legitimacy of a government that viewed some citizens as sub-human. 

What’s true in South Carolina is just as true in Texas. To deny the brutality that is inflicted on many of our fellow citizens — and not just African-Americans — as they visit what is, after all, their Capitol is simply obtuse. What, for example, should parents say to their children when asked about these presumably great men? The monument is not merely honoring the brave young men who gave their lives on behalf of a thoroughly wicked cause; it is celebrating that cause and its articulation by “leaders” like Davis. 

UT-Austin’s motto is “what starts here changes the world.” Some might see that as typical Texan braggadocio. The real question is whether what starts on the UT campus changes the state Capitol grounds just a few blocks away. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Sanford Levinson

Law professor and author of "An Argument Open to All: Reading the Federalist in the 21st Century"