Texas employees get Friday off to celebrate "Confederate heroes"

State employees have the day off on Friday for Confederate Heroes Day, which has a controversial history in Texas.

The Confederate Soldiers' Monument on the south lawn of the state Capitol in Austin. John Jordan for The Texas Tribune

Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday isn't the only holiday this week for state employees in Texas. They can also take off Friday for a state holiday that has been a source of controversy: Confederate Heroes Day.

Confederate Heroes Day is a skeleton crew holiday, when state employees can take a paid day off but state offices remain open. Employees who work can take another day off instead, according to Kevin Lyons of the Texas comptroller's office. Other skeleton crew holidays include Texas Independence Day and San Jacinto Day. 

Some lawmakers attempted in 2015 and 2017 to change the name of the holiday to "Civil War Remembrance Day" and move the date to avoid occasional conflicts with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the measure never gained traction. 

“We’re not talking about wiping out that part of history — or those that may be our family members who fought in the Confederacy,” said  state Rep. Donna Howard, author of the 2015 proposal. “But we are saying that it needs to be inclusive of everyone else and reflect the way we want to recognize what happened ... and the fact that we are the United States now.”

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In the past year, the issue of Confederate memorials and monuments has gripped the nation. Last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists held a rally protesting the city’s plan to remove a Confederate statue, leading to a deadly clash between ralliers and counterprotesters. In Texas, the state Capitol has recently faced criticism over its Confederate monuments and UT-Austin removed its confederate statues, which campus president Gregory Fenves called “symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.” 

Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman Marshall Davis said this week the symbols of Confederate veterans don’t stand for hate but for history and honor.

“They served their country nobly and bravely, and many, many of them never came home,” Davis said. “When these monuments are being taken down, these are United States veteran memorials. Whether you understand the causes of the war or support the war, you still need to honor the veterans that were there.” 

Davis said Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Confederate Heroes Day falling on the same week means there can be space to celebrate multiple heroes this week. 

Confederate Heroes Day has been a state holiday since 1973, when lawmakers voted to consolidate two state holidays: Confederate General Robert E. Lee's birthday on Jan. 19 and the June 3 birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Texas is one of nine states, along with South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee and Louisiana, that have holidays remembering Confederate soldiers. 

In 2015, Howard's proposal to move the holiday to May — to align with the official ending of the Civil War — and call it "Civil War Remembrance Day" caused an uproar at the Texas Capitol. Student Jacob Hale introduced a draft of the legislation during a committee hearing, telling lawmakers the change would create a “more accurate symbol of our state's diverse history.”  

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The measure died in committee. State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, filed a similar measure in 2017, but the bill never got a hearing. 

Morgan White, a state employee in Austin, is not working this Confederate Heroes Day because she's on leave. 

"I don’t think people take it off in order to celebrate the holiday really," White said. "People just want an extra day off work." 

The plaque on the Confederate Dead Monument on the South Lawn of the state Capitol in Austin on Jan. 16, 2018.
The plaque on the Confederate Dead Monument on the South Lawn of the state Capitol in Austin on Jan. 16, 2018. John Jordan / The Texas Tribune