Texas Confederate plaques are taken down

Tuesday, June 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUSTIN – Over the protests of Confederate heritage groups, the governor's office this weekend replaced two plaques that had commemorated the Civil War and hung outside the state's highest courtrooms for 40 years.

State officials waited until the building, shared by the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, was closed Friday night to replace the old plaques with others that earned the tacit approval of the NAACP.

The NAACP had called for removal of the old plaques, one bearing the rebel flag, which raised political questions in the presidential campaign of Gov. George W. Bush.

In February, Mr. Bush said he favored leaving the Confederate symbols outside the courts and creating a new, third plaque to explain how the building was constructed in 1955 with monies transferred from a Civil War widow's fund.

Because of the funding source, a law was passed at the time saying the building should be dedicated to Confederate soldiers. That language was deleted by the Legislature in 1979.

Two weeks ago, The Dallas Morning News reported an apparent change of mind by the governor's office, which had produced language for replacement plaques and shared it with various interested groups.

At the time, Mr. Bush's office publicly denied it was planning to replace the plaques and said options were still being studied.

But leaders of the Sons of Confederate Veterans learned Friday that the move was imminent and went to state district Judge Paul Davis for a restraining order.

Their request – to maintain the old plaques until a public hearing could be held over whether their removal is legal – was denied.

"It seems like some sort of democratic rights are being run rough-shod over,'' said Denne Sweeney, commander of the Texas division of the confederate veterans group.

Mr. Sweeney also has filed a complaint with the General Services Commission, which oversees maintenance of the courts building. Thus far, he said, no action has been taken on his request for a hearing.

Steve Lucas, heritage chairman for the Confederate veterans group, said his group and others will continue the fight.

"The war is not over. It has just begun,'' Mr. Lucas said.

Threats of protest

"If Governor Bush does not restore the original plaques, these parties vow to place a uniformed Confederate soldier or widow carrying a large Confederate flag in front of the Supreme Court building for two hours every weekday until election day," he said.

Michael Jones, a spokesman for Mr. Bush, said Monday that the new plaques demonstrate respect "for the history and diversity that make Texas unique."

They "will help assure all Texans that our courts provide fair and impartial justice," and explain the Confederate financial support of the building, he said.

The old plaque outside the Supreme Court chamber had included the rebel flag and quoted Robert E. Lee about the bravery of Texas soldiers. In its place is a new sign without any symbols stating: "The courts of Texas are entrusted with providing equal justice under the law regardless of race, creed or color."

Outside the Court of Criminal Appeals had been a plaque with the Confederate seal and declaration that the building was dedicated to those who fought for the South.

Now, a new plaque reads: "Because this building was built with monies from the Confederate pension fund, it was, at that time, designated as a memorial to the Texans who served the Confederacy."

NAACP pleased

Gary Bledsoe, president of the state NAACP, said Monday that the courts building should be dedicated to all Texans and he was pleased with the change.

"We are heartened by the news that the hate symbols have been removed from the walls of the Texas Supreme Court,'' he said. "They have presented an unnecessary stain on our judiciary.''

He has said that it is particularly onerous that minorities seeking justice had to walk past symbols used by hate groups and that honor those who fought to preserve slavery.

Mr. Sweeney said his group is angered that historical artifacts recalling a time of hardship and bravery are being removed.

"There's never been a bit of controversy that I know of over the great seal of the Confederacy . . . yet they've taken that down,'' Mr. Sweeney said. "They're starting down a real slippery slope."

He said he believes the governor's office wanted to remove the plaques before Juneteenth – the June 19 holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves in Texas.

Mr. Lucas said he thinks that Mr. Sweeney's demand for a public hearing "spurred decision makers to take them [the plaques] down before any official hearing or action could be taken."

The courts building is located on the Capitol grounds, which is home to three statues that commemorate Texans' role in the Civil War.

The Confederate Soldier's statue is the largest monument on the grounds and is situated at the south entrance to the Capitol. The other two pay tribute to the Terry Texas Rangers and Hood's Brigade.

No official protest has been lodged against those monuments.

The issue of the rebel flag on the courts building was reborn last year while Mr. Bush was engaged in the South Carolina primary and was asked whether the Confederate battle flag should be removed from atop that state's Capitol.

At the time, Mr. Bush said it was a local issue that should be decided by South Carolinians. Since then, the South Carolina Legislature voted to relocate the flag to a monument on the Statehouse grounds.