Jerry Patterson is the current Texas Land Commissioner and has declared himself a 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor. Patterson has been in the news quite a bit lately because he sponsored a proposal to allow Texas drivers to display the Confederate flag on their license plates. Patterson submitted the idea on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of which he says he is a “proud” member.
The proposal has generated a strong reaction. Last week a coalition of groups opposed to the proposal submitted over 22,000 signatures to the Texas DMV board slated to make the final decision. As with all boards and commissions in the Lone Star State, every member of that board is a Rick Perry appointee. While Perry himself has tried to keep a low profile on this issue, he has sided with SCV in the past.
Why did Patterson sponsor the license plate? Apparently it was because of his “personal heritage” and “commitment to Texas history—even the history others might find offensive” To those who question the wisdom of his efforts to place the Confederate emblem on something as public as license plates, Patterson refers critics to his earlier sponsorship of a similar license plate on behalf of the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston. “I think we can honor both of them,” he says. “If we can honor those who killed Indians and imprisoned them, why is it bad to honor those who theoretically fought for slavery, which is not accurate?”
As someone familiar with the black and Indian history of Texas, let me venture to furnish Mr. Patterson with a response. I will not focus on the obviousness of the reasons (of course it was slavery) behind Texasʼs decision to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. Those reasons were made clear on February 2, 1861, when the secession convention published its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union.”
The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is a history of the meanings, understandings and contradictions of American freedom, whereas the story of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is primarily a history of the glorification and uncritical admiration of racial oppression and white supremacy. Both Indians and blacks were victims of that white supremacy, with one oppressed group utilized to fight against another oppressed group, hardly a novel proposition in American or Texas history, indeed World history.
A Texas license plate for the former is justified; allowing a state sanctioned license plate in honor of the latter would not just be an insult to the stateʼs African American and Indian populations, it would once again send the message, as I first noted eleven years ago, that Texas remains the most unreconstructed state in the nation.
Inter-marriage between blacks and Indians on the sparsely settled frontier was common. Some of the soldiers serving in Buffalo Soldier regiments were themselves descendants of slaves formerly owned by the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”—some of them were of mixed race. The term “Buffalo Soldier” was intended as a sign of respect on the part of Indians the soldiers encountered. Indeed there are many members of Indian tribes today who are proud of their African-American roots and boast of having a Buffalo Soldier in their family line.
Pattersonʼs focus on the killing of Indians by blacks might seem somewhat strange at first glance, but upon further reflection comes into sharper focus as a decidedly neo-Confederate point of view. That members or fellow travelers of the Sons of Confederate Veterans not only sanctioned but conducted dozens of lynchings in Texas—and that there is not one historical marker commemorating a lynching—seems to have escaped Mr. Pattersonʼs notice. Thatʼs the true history of the organization of which he is a “proud” member.
Historical commemoration is both a private and public matter. While I personally believe that membership in the SCV should disqualify someone from holding public office, if Mr. Patterson or Mr. Perry choose to be proud of their Confederate heritage thatʼs their business, just as it is a Naziʼs personal business if he or she chooses to memorialize or admire the ghoulish philosophies and unspeakable acts of the German government during the National Socialist period (full disclosure: my maternal grandfather fought and died in World War II on the German side, whereas my father was a part of the post-war American occupying force). In a post World War II Germany, however, it is not legal nor socially acceptable to prominently display the swastika.
Unlike the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its sister organization the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose historical agendas remain apparent by simply examining a random sample of historical markers and commemorations across the state such as the 1959 “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque currently mounted at the state Capitol, modern Germans long ago had the good sense to not fool themselves into believing that the sordid mission of genocide and white supremacy largely based on American racial norms somehow constituted a Lost Cause.