History for Grownups, Not Politicians

We all know that wonderful line in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” that "when the facts meet the legend, print the legend." And legends are what these politicos want to promote, no matter how slanted and incomplete that history is.

History for Grownups, Not Politicians

About 18 years ago, my wife and I took our 7-year-old daughter to Walt Disney World. We did all the usual, rode Space Mountain, Dumbo, the crazy teacups, the Haunted Mansion and the rest. We took in the MGM studios and then made what I now refer to as the “Epcot Death March.”

For those who haven’t been, the Epcot theme park was originally going to be Walt Disney's vision of the perfect American town. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was to be a perfect example of urban planning and modern technology. We never got the city part but the theme park was built, and built. Maybe they'll get to the city part when they thaw out Walt.

"Hey kids, while we're in Europe anyway, let's stroll over to France!" 

And in Epcot, surrounding the artificial lake is a collection of artificial foreign countries. Pavilions really, representing a short visit to Mexico, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Morocco, France, Norway, Canada, and the UK. The park employees seem to be ethnically appropriate college kids manning their respective countries, and you’re supposed to feel like you have actually visited the Alps or Tokyo. If you go into a pub in the UK pavilion, you can indeed get a Guinness and hear a bartender with a pretty good accent.

But having frequented a few pubs in England and Ireland, it comes off as a movie set, not a real bar. The smells and general atmosphere are all wrong. It’s a sanitized, Disney version of the world with kids in lederhosen and sombreros to make you feel you have really met some foreign folks. All they need is Minnie in a kimono.

I'm Mr. Patrick and with your teacher out sick, I'll be your substitute today. Let's watch "Rio Bravo."

And that world is the world politicians like Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Ron DeSantis want your kids to visit in school. Specifically, in history and sociology class. Yes, there was a reason for my laborious trip down memory lane. We all know that wonderful line in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” that when the facts meet the legend, print the legend.  Of course, “Valance” was directed by that great purveyor of America's legends, John Ford, and starred the rootin'est, tootin'est WWII draft dodger of them all, the Duke.

And, Margaret, if you saw the movie you found out that Travis was actually British. 

And that legend is what these three and other politicos like them, want to promote, no matter how slanted and incomplete that history is. As a kid who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, I was as big a sucker for that Epcot version of American history as the next kid. “They Died with Their Boots On” taught me that George Custer, who looked like Errol Flynn, wasn’t that bad a guy. Billy the Kid was a charming young desperado. And, first and foremost, the Daughters of the Confederacy had done their jobs well, and we all learned about the “lost cause” and the Scarlett O’Hara version of slavery and the Civil War.

Where never is heard a discouraging word. 

And as a Texas kid who loved history, I learned about the Mt. Olympus of Texas, Houston, Crockett, Bowie and Travis and the valiant stand at the Alamo. And it was valiant, though it was unnecessary. If Travis hadn’t been completely without military training, it wouldn’t have happened at all. In fact, Travis was a slave owner who deserted his pregnant wife and two children to avoid debt collectors to seek his fortune in Texas; he then disobeyed orders and tried to hold off an army of well over a thousand with 183 men. Bowie was an actual slave trader and smuggler.

"Don't look at me. I didn't want to secede."

Only Crockett and Houston emerge with reputations somewhat intact when the truth is fully known. And of course, the fact that Mexico had outlawed slavery was a big part of the revolution. Though you’d never have known it from my 7th grade Texas History course.  Cotton was king in Texas and in the minds of the Texians, that meant you needed slaves. So, Come and Take Them, Santa Anna.

But even today, our state leaders want to downplay that in favor of the John Wayne version of Texas history. All motives were pure and all the characters were heroes. But history, like science, doesn’t care what you think. It just is. The current hubbub over Critical Race Theory, which has become a frankly ignorant catchphrase to cover anything having to do with black history, is a good example.

Ask yourself honestly, or as honestly as possible. Do any of us believe that race and the law have not been intertwined for the entire history of this country? And generally, to the detriment of African-Americans. And not just the detriment, but the mortal survival at times.

One you may not have heard of. 

We have learned in the last few years about the race massacres in Tulsa and Rosewood in Florida. But have you heard of the racial killings in Slocum, Texas in 1910? In a small, unincorporated town near Palestine, for a reason that is still murky, white folks began shooting black folks, house to house, door to door. Families fled, hid and ultimately relocated. The dead were shoved into a mass grave. Men were indicted but never tried. It was reported by survivors and their descendants. It was reported in the newspapers in Houston, Tyler, Washington and New York. It was reported by the Sheriff and County Judge at the time. They were white, by the way.

Yet when some of those descendants went to the Anderson County Historical Society to request a marker commemorating the event, the chairman, a guy named Jimmy Ray Odem said, “I just don’t see much documentation that says this is the truth.” They finally got the marker, by the way, by appealing to the state.

All three politicians I named earlier have essentially said the same thing. They don't want kids of any race to have their feelings hurt. They don’t want any course to make young people uncomfortable about the actions of their forebears. It sounds a bit kumbaya and snowflakey, to be honest. In a much more dramatic example, I imagine German students are more than a bit uncomfortable when they learn of their country’s past, but learn it they do. And they learn it, as one German colleague told me in Berlin, so it doesn't happen again.

But slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, the Indian wars and the reservation system and brutal Indian schools that followed, all are too much for tender ears. The treatment of Mexicans in Texas is glossed over, if discussed at all. Sugar-coating is a kind description.

Well, yeah. We got February, so I guess we're all square.

This is the education that Abbott, Patrick and DiSantis want. And, to be honest, they want it because it is politically appealing to a segment of the public that wants Hollywood to teach history. Tom Edison, while brilliant, was surely more like Spencer Tracy than the greedy reality, a man who ruined other’s careers. Henry Ford was a genius innovator, not the virulent antisemite he was. And don’t get me started on Lucky Lindy and his buddies Hitler and Goering.

And here is the test, and the question I have asked myself. I know the realities about all these people, but we must admit their accomplishments as well. They did genuinely extraordinary things. We all know people who are admirable in many ways, but in others, have feet of clay. Did FDR have a mistress? Did Astronauts fool around with groupies? Was Washington actually a pretty nasty piece of work in his treatment of his slaves? Did Jefferson force a young black woman to become his mistress? Was my literary idol Ernest Hemingway ofttimes a pretty miserable human being? The answer to all of the above is yes, by the way. But it is the dichotomy history forces us to accept. Great people are rarely perfect.

That is the, perhaps, hypocritical compromise most of us make about our history. We admire the courage, vision, skill and bravado of many of our historical legends. We also understand they had dark sides, in many cases, and completely unadmirable ones. Can I marvel at the skill and nuance with which JFK handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, while being aware he was an absolute hound dog and skirt chaser and hurt the women in his life profoundly? I suppose most of us compartmentalize these things. It's like being religious, but believing Darwin. I can handle both tracks in my mind.

So, I have more faith in young people than our political leaders do. I think they can take our shared past, with its greatness, and failings, and digest it just fine. I don’t think they’ll be at each other’s throats because they learned something about Jim Crow in sociology class. If anything, they'll no doubt see the problems we have and wonder how it all began and how we got here. That is the essential job of history.

And I am equally sure, that our history and the pantheon of great men and women we revere, will not include the names Abbott, Patrick and DeSantis. But who knows? It's a small world after all.

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.