Dallas Democrat wants attorney general to weigh in on ‘insulting’ Confederate plaque

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WEST DALLAS — Rep. Eric Johnson is tired of waiting.

Six months ago, the Dallas Democrat asked the governor who has the power to remove a 60-year-old Confederate plaque affixed to the wall outside his state Capitol office. But the plaque remains, so Johnson has decided to take matters into his own hands.

The Dallas Morning News has confirmed Johnson will soon ask the attorney general to tell him who has the authority to tear down the plaque — historical monument authorities, lawmakers, the governor or someone else?

“He hasn’t found the answer,” Johnson tells The News. “I think I’m going to have to go find it myself.”

The governor’s staff is still studying the issue, but said Gov. Greg Abbott believes lawmakers should have a role in deciding the plaque’s future because that’s who voted to install it.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s patience is wearing thin.

Standing on the corner of North Hampton Road and Bickers Street, he remembers growing up around the everyday legacies of slavery and segregation — the West Dallas housing projects where his mother lived, the iron smelter that poisoned the earth around them, the white and black schools that divided neighbor from neighbor.

Poverty. Disenfranchisement. Segregation. Recalling these struggles is necessary to ensure their eradication. But there’s a difference, Johnson says, between remembering the past and lionizing its villains.

“I’m not going to wait much longer,” he says. “That plaque is going to come down.”

‘It’s insulting’

The Children of the Confederacy plaque hangs on the north wall of the Capitol rotunda, behind the rows of governors’ portraits. Rick Perry and George Bush and Ann Richards sit on one side; on the reverse is the plaque that claims secession was not an act of rebellion and the Civil War was not fought to sustain slavery.

It was erected in 1959, in the midst of the civil rights movement, and dedicated by the state Legislature.

Abbott’s office told The News on Thursday the governor has been studying the plaque and its history since he sat down with Johnson in October. The two did not reach an agreement on the plaque’s future at that time. The State Preservation Board, which manages the Capitol grounds and many of its monuments, has researched the plaque since then and provided a report to the governor.

Still, no one knows — definitively — who might have the unilateral authority to remove the plaque.

"In researching its history and throughout the process, there have been more questions than answers," Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews told The News on Thursday. "However, because the plaque was put in place by an act of the Texas Legislature, it would seem appropriate that lawmakers play a role in determining its future."

Johnson doesn’t want to wait until 2019, when lawmakers next meet, to discuss the plaque. Instead, he’s decided to ask Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in and will soon file a request for an official opinion. Paxton’s opinions don’t carry the rule of law, but they can provide a legal basis for defense.

Black lawmakers have tried for years to get the plaque removed to no avail. Johnson first asked for its removal last year, when he moved offices and found himself face-to-face with the plaque and its message.

“Slavery was integral to the Civil War,” Johnson said. “It was the reason that Texas joined the Confederacy, and for the plaque outside my office to claim otherwise is not just counterfactual, it’s insulting to people like my mother and folks who had to endure the legacy of slavery in this state.”

“It sends the same message today that it sent back in 1959,” Johnson said. “To remind everyone of whose in charge.

The Children of the Confederacy, an offshoot of the Daughters of the Confederacy, pushed for and raised $201 for the plaque’s installation. The plaque echoed the group’s creed, including a pledge "to study and teach the truths of history [one of the most important of which is, that the War between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery]."

Both the Daughters and Children of the Confederacy are active groups today, but the latter’s creed was significantly altered a few years ago. It no longer claims the Civil War was not fought to sustain slavery.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, agrees the plaque should come down. Straus is retiring before lawmakers next meet in 2019. But even with him as a state leader, convincing the Republican-dominated Legislature to remove the plaque would be a tough political fight.

‘The true story’

Many of visible reminders of the legacy of slavery in West Dallas have come down, Johnson says. The projects were demolished in the 1990s. The iron smelter is closed. The schools have integrated.

Across the state, hundreds of Confederate markers remain.

This week, the Dallas City Council delayed deciding on the future of the downtown Confederate war memorial and voted not to sell the Robert E. Lee statue removed from Oak Lawn Park last year. It’s ultimate fate remains unknown.

Some may call it history, heritage, but to many black Texans, Johnson says, these plaques and monuments and the statues are as much a vestige of the country’s racist past as the Jim Crow laws that followed.

“I don’t want to erase the past,” Johnson says. “I want to tell the true story.”

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