In March 1956 the elected leaders of the Southern states pledged to defend school segregation, despite civil rights pressures and Supreme Court rulings demanding racial reforms. The authors of the “Southern Manifesto” pressured elected officials to sign on to its Jim Crow rhetoric, promising to mobilize angry mobs of White voters against anyone who defied. Nineteen U.S. senators and 82 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed the segregationist pledge. Most Southern governors and local officials voiced their support as well.
Historians have documented how the pressure to pledge support for segregation eliminated the space for compromise: you had to be either for segregation or against it, nothing in-between. Many elected officials caved to the fear of alienating white voters.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s “Back the Blue” manifesto re-plays this terrible history. After repeated examples of police brutality toward citizens of color, and overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system treats citizens of color in prejudicial ways, the governor has chosen to defend the status quo and bully elected officials to follow his lead. He demands that elected officials pledge “to support any measure that discourages or stops efforts to defund police departments in Texas.”
Any measure? Really? How is this different from segregation at any cost? How is this different from the intentional silencing of civil rights claims in the Southern Manifesto?
Abbott’s measure, in fact, is straight out of the Jim Crow playbook. The governor wants to overturn reforms approved unanimously by the Austin City Council to cut about $20 million – or 5 percent — from the police department’s $400 million budget next year. The city also plans to explore ways to fully fund traditional police patrol service, but reorganize other public safety programs, including mental health, forensics labs and family crisis intervention, outside of direct police control.
In retaliation, Abbott’s proposal would freeze the city’s property tax authority and, while details remain few, further envisions the state seizing full control of Austin’s police services.
Why is Abbott demanding this pledge of support for such draconian action from elected officials? He offers no pledge on racial justice or police reform of any kind. Like the Jim Crow politicians of 1956, the governor is trying to polarize debate into a question of whether you are “for” or “against” the police, with no room for compromise and reform in-between. The echoes of “segregation now and forever” are obvious.
Two great Texans were among the very few Southern officials who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto in 1956: Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senator Lyndon Johnson.
They were not full-throated supporters of integration. They believed in maintaining some elements of segregation, at least for the moment. But they refused to accept the stubborn defense of the status quo at all costs, without necessary reform. They refused to reject the legitimate civil rights claims by citizens of color.
Rayburn and Johnson pursued “racial moderation” – an effort to maintain the institutions of the South, but also reform them to improve public safety, racial equality, and freedom for all. In the decade after the racist promulgation of the Southern Manifesto, Rayburn and Johnson succeeded, producing the most far reaching civil rights legislation in recent American history. Among other things, Johnson and Rayburn began the process of desegregating schools and police departments in Texas. Rayburn and Johnson succeeded because they avoided extreme pledges of loyalty, and built diverse coalitions to serve shared needs. They worked closely with people who favored one side or the other, and many in-between.
Reform, improvement, and equality require a commitment to compromise and change, in the interest of all citizens. Pledges to protect the status quo at any cost set everyone back. They are the worst of Jim Crow’s legacy in the South. Instead of signing pledges to support “any measure” for the police or any other institution, we need commitments to work together in ways that will reform our flawed institutions to increase safety and freedom for everyone.
Gov. Abbott: please rewrite your pledge to erase the Jim Crow language, and embrace reforms that make our police better, with protection and dignity for all of our diverse citizens.
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