Phillips: Will Abbott, Patrick push Confederate lie or right history?

In 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking to a crowd of about 25,000 that had marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in support of voting rights for black people, said, “Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?

“How long? Not long. Because no lie can live forever.”

We are witnessing the truth of that statement as we watch the unraveling of a powerful, longstanding lie regarding the Civil War and the tributes erected to sustain and perpetuate that deception.

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The big question is whether Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other top Texas leaders will continue defending such mendacity or yield to the truth?

That is the issue before them as the fate of a metal plaque in the Capitol, titled “Children of the Confederacy Creed,” is debated. The plaque exalts soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War and retells history by stating that the Southern states didn’t rebel and that slavery wasn’t at the root of the conflict.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the plaque was erected in 1959 by the Texas division of the Children of the Confederacy.

That is after Brown v. Board of Education; after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus; and after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American, was brutally beaten, shot to death and discarded in a river by white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the plaque seems more an act of defiance than deference.

It states: “We, therefore, pledge ourselves to preserve pure ideals, to honor our veterans, 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) and to always act in a manner that will reflect honor upon our noble and patriotic ancestors.”

That is a lie that finally is crumbling.

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We know the plaque’s statements are false because the Texas Declaration of Causes tells us the truth about why the Lone Star State seceded in words written in 1861, not nearly 100 years later in 1959.

“(Texas) was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time,” the declaration states.

Noting the plaque’s inaccuracies, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, who is African-American, asked the State Preservation Board to take it down. The plaque, he said, is 40 steps from his Capitol office.

“There is a clear difference between acknowledging historical events and glorifying a distorted version of the past. The Legislature owes it to the people of Texas to remove these false and offensive reinventions of history,” Johnson said.

Others, too, have called out the lie and are pressing for the plaque’s removal, including state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who sits on the Preservation Board along with Abbott, Patrick and a few other lawmakers.

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“The plaque says that the Civil War was not an act of rebellion and was not primarily about slavery,” Straus said in a letter to the Preservation Board. “This is not accurate, and Texans are not well-served by incorrect information about our history.”

Straus showed courage in debunking a lie that long has fueled Texas lore painting secession and the Civil War as something honorable.

The truth — that Texas fought to maintain its enslavement of black people — doesn’t fit that bill. But a made-up story in which independent, boot-strapping Texans fought to preserve states’ rights against a meddling federal government — now that was noble.

It was a lie that took root and spread. Today, it’s all around us – on the hallowed grounds of the Texas Capitol, with a dozen or so statues glorifying the Confederacy and its “heroes.”

The lies are found on street names in Austin, such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and school buildings; in our children’s textbooks; and on our courthouses and state offices.

So far, Abbott, Patrick and other top leaders have dodged the issue, hoping like a fever, it will pass.

It won’t. As King said: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again. Because no lie can live forever.”

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