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Calling the celebration of Confederate Heroes Day a "constant reminder" of a horrible past, state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, on Wednesday called for Texas to end its commemoration as a state holiday.
Confederate Heroes Day is celebrated on Jan. 19. The holiday commemorates the lives of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee as well as soldiers who died fighting the Union during the Civil War. Texas used to separately celebrate the birthdays of Davis and Lee, but consolidated them in 1973 into Confederate Heroes Day.
"When we talk about what Confederate Heroes Day is, it is a remembrance of a horrible past," Johnson, who is Black, said at a press conference surrounded by other lawmakers. "A past that has done irreparable damage to many of the residents of the state of Texas."
Johnson's bill to end Confederate Heroes Day is his third attempt; similar legislation didn't make it out of committees in the past two legislative sessions. In 2019, the House State Affairs Committee, then led by now-Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, didn't bring up Johnson's bill for a vote.
In 2019, the Descendants of Confederate Veterans opposed the legislation. A spokesperson for the group declined comment on the new legislation.
Johnson was surrounded by leaders of the Texas Black Leadership Caucus, the House Democratic Caucus and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus at Wednesday's press conference.
"We cannot stand by as our state continues to formally celebrate and glorify the men who believed so deeply that Black men and women did not have rights, that they would go to war," said state Rep. Christina Morales, a Houston Democrat who is vice chair for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. "We must teach our history to our children, but our children should grow up knowing that the Confederacy does not stand for the values of freedom that we continue to fight for today."
Johnson pushed back against those who say the celebration of Confederate veterans is part of their heritage by saying he is also the descendant of a Confederate soldier — a white slaveowner who raped his Black slave. Johnson said his great-great-great-grandmother later ran away to Texas.
"At no point in my life, at no point in my children's life, will I ever celebrate that part of my history," Johnson said. "There is no point in celebrating an individual that created harm and did such harmful things to others."
Confederate Heroes Day often falls close to, or on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which celebrates the Black civil rights leader murdered in 1968. In the next 20 years, the holidays will fall on the same day four times, according to state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who is sponsoring the legislation in the upper chamber.
Seven other states have similar Confederate memorial days. Mississippi and Alabama have a joint Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee Day. In 2020, Virginia removed its Confederate holiday, Lee-Jackson Day, as a state holiday.
Nathan Johnson said the celebration of the holiday in Texas makes him "feel sick."
"If I filed a bill today to establish Confederate Heroes Day, would you vote for it? Would you give it a hearing?" he asked. "This thing doesn't belong on our books. It creates divisions whether we want it to or not."
Jarvis Johnson said he is hopeful the legislation will advance this session, but significant barriers exist. No Republicans, who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, attended the press conference, even though some have previously signed on as co-authors of Johnson's bills. And in recent years, top Republican leaders have acted to defend Confederate monuments even as other states like Virginia have been tearing them down.
Jarvis Johnson said every time the bill is filed it gains momentum with the public.
"I believe through perseverance and persistence that we will be able to get this done," he said.