October 2017

Hate Behind the Pine Curtain

Life and cultural expectations in East Texas continue to promote segregation in both personal and social relationships. Although white supremacist marches like the one in Charlottesville grip American headlines, neo-Nazis and Klansmen supporting the same doctrine in the open are not uncommon behind the Pine Curtain.

by M. Rhys Dotson 

Over the course of the last eighteen months, Americans have seen a rise in racist and hate rhetoric throughout the United States. Alt-Right speakers and organizations continue to hold rallies and marches on college campuses across the country. As counter-protesters gather to speak out against these events, Americans appear more divided now than ever. Many media outlets have connected this hate to the political rhetoric used by President Donald Trump while running for office. In fact, the Ku Klux Klan openly endorsed President Trump, citing his “nationalist views” during his campaign, which they claimed was “moving the dialogue forward” towards preventing “white genocide.”

While racism and hate appear in national headlines, many Americans, especially southerners, are not shocked by the current national conversation. Despite the fact that the Civil Rights movement began almost six decades ago, many white southerners contend that the federal government forced racial equality on them through court cases like Brown v. Board of Education. Behind the “Pine Curtain”—what journalists and locals call the East Texas area (due to the high density of pine trees in the region), located east of Dallas and north of I-45—life and cultural expectations continue to promote segregation in both personal and social relationships. Although white supremacist marches like the one in Charlottesville grip American headlines, neo-Nazis and Klansmen supporting the same doctrine in the open are not uncommon in East Texas.

Linda Brown Smith
Linda Brown Smith, whose father launched the lawsuit that eventually overturned segregated education in the U.S. Courtesy The Atlantic.

Acts of racism and bigotry are not uncommon in East Texas even today.  In fact, you might even call this a local tradition. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court, in its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, found racial segregation of schools unconstitutional. Like most white southerners, East Texas residents at first refused, and then only begrudgingly embraced desegregation within their local communities and schools.

By September 1954, the Texas Attorney General was attempting to limit the influence and growth of the NAACP of Texas by filing suit in the city of Tyler. Tyler had long supported segregation and the ideals of the Confederate States of America. In fact, during the Civil War, J.C. Short of Tyler supplied Confederate soldiers with rifles. Due to this history, Texas political officials believed that Tyler courts and citizens would be sympathetic to their cause. As a result, local officials claimed that the NAACP inspired “racial hatred and rioting,” in addition to failing to pay state taxes. Furthermore, by mobilizing African Americans to challenge segregation and engage in political activity, white supremacists argued that the organization encouraged “barratry,” or the filing of frivolous litigation.[1]

Local officials claimed that the NAACP inspired “racial hatred and rioting.”

This leads to a broader question about the differences between those who champion freedom, arguably the most important American value, and those who seek to destroy it. To those white Texans in power, members of the black community were engaging in subversive tactics, which led to chaos both in the state and across the nation. Perhaps there is a fine line between fighting for equality and creating chaos, but it is more likely that those in power ultimately get to decide the motivation and intentions of those who speak out against social injustices.

Either way, it was clear that Texas was preparing to fight both the NAACP and integration. As Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP converged for a dispute in Tyler, white residents from across the state poured into Smith County to show their solidarity and support for segregation. One local reporter noted that these visitors passed out Confederate flags as if they did not know it had “been 90 years since the Civil War.”[2] The use of Confederate flags served two purposes. First it reminded both white and black citizens of Texas’ legacy of Civil War involvement and service. Secondly, it reminded black residents of the long history of segregation, which many white Texans intended to continue.

Despite strong arguments for the organization, Marshall was unable to secure a victory for the NAACP. In May of 1957, State District Judge Otis T. Dunagan ruled that the NAACP must cease functioning within the state in regards to both political and legal matters. Dunagan’s ruling crippled the organization and limited support for African Americans in Texas. In fact, he specifically limited the NAACP’s influence to matters solely of “educational and charitable activities.”[3] Though members of the Texas NAACP wanted to challenge Dunagan’s ruling, members of the national office believed that a challenge in 1957 could be damaging for the organization not only in Texas, but also throughout the south. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that states could not impede and limit the organization of NAACP.

Not surprisingly, black residents of Tyler continued to struggle for equal treatment and access to desegregated schools. As the school district expanded in the late 1950s, the Tyler Independent School District (TISD) opened two new schools, Robert E. Lee and John Tyler. Despite the fact that a few residents opposed the naming of one of the schools after a Confederate general, the school board overwhelmingly voted on the name Robert E. Lee High School. In the years prior to integration, the school adopted the Rebel as its mascot, waved Confederate flags at school events and functions, and used various Confederate symbols throughout the campus.

Robert E. Lee Rebel Gaurd - 1967 Robert E. Lee High School Yearbook _The Legend_
The Robert E. Lee school’s “Rebel Guard” mascots pose in replica Confederate uniforms with the canon they fired at school football games. Photo from the 1967 Robert E. Lee Yearbook “The Legend.”

Despite the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, Tyler public schools remained segregated until the Fall semester of 1970. Almost immediately, African American students urged the school board to change the name of the school and remove Confederate symbols used on school uniforms and within the décor of the school. Despite these calls, school board officials routinely tabled any discussion regarding the name and symbols used at the school.

Within three weeks of integration, United States District Judge William Wayne Justice placed over 1,000 Texas schools, including TISD, under his purview due to a lack of timely response to matters of integration.[4] Furthermore, Justice instructed the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to ensure that school districts across the state fully comply with integration orders. By the end of 1971, the TEA informed the Tyler School Board that Robert E. Lee must change both the mascot and symbols used at the school. If the district refused to comply, they would lose accreditation and face a fine of almost $800,000.[5]

Unfortunately, the majority of white citizens of Tyler had no problem with the “rebel” as the mascot of the local high school.  They did not connect the idea that a rebel, someone who rebels against those in power, with the reality of the Civil War. Southern states openly rebelled against the United States between 1860 and 1865. Rather than condemning these actions, as they have for others who have rebelled against the government and/or perceived social injustices, many southerners praised and honored Confederate soldiers and ideals.

Delmus Jeffries - Robert E. Lee High School Yearbook _The Legend_ 1971
Delmus Young plays the chimes in his band uniform emblazoned with the Confederate flag. Photo from the 1971 Robert E. Lee Yearbook “The Legend.”

Though Justice worked to ensure integration and acceptance in Texas public schools, many residents of Tyler believed that the federal government, through the court system, had exceeded their authority within the state. Many residents of Tyler, both in the seventies and today, strongly oppose federal intervention in state and local matters. During the first few years of integration, local media outlets reported on “skirmishes” between white and African American students. Members of the community often blamed Justice for “mixing blacks and whites too quickly.”[6] In fact, one school board member stated that “if black students had been a little less arrogant, a little less demanding,” then they could have achieved a compromise within the school.[7] Unfortunately, opponents of civil rights causes often cite a lack of patience or humbleness from those seeking equal treatment and opportunities.

Not surprisingly, Tyler officials and citizens did not limit their discrimination solely to African American. As more Hispanic families moved to Tyler, the School Board passed a motion in 1977 to bar undocumented children from attending public schools unless their families paid approximately $1000 in tuition.  Once again Judge William Wayne Justice stepped in to defend minorities within TISD. He ruled that requiring undocumented students to pay tuition for a free, public education was unconstitutional. Attorneys challenged Justice’s decision all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In Plyler v. Doe, the Court upheld Justice’s ruling. Furthermore, the Court noted that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protected undocumented children and that denying a child of an education would lead to a “permanent underclass” status and “a lifetime of hardship.”[8]

This segregationist past continued to inform life behind the Pine Curtain. Long before the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, local police shot and killed an elderly black woman named Annie Rae Dixon in the middle of the night. Following a tip of possible drug activity at a rural home, Gregg County police officials planned to raid Dixon’s home. As Officer Frank Baggett entered her bedroom, he shot Dixon, a bedridden woman, in the chest while she slept. To make matters worse, the officers had accidentally exceeded their jurisdiction, as Dixon resided in Smith County. Additionally, the officers found no evidence of drugs or drug paraphernalia inside the home.[9]

According to Officer Baggett, his gun misfired after he kicked down the door to enter the room. Much like other police shootings, a grand jury in Tyler did not indict Baggett, which enraged the local African American community. Following the grand jury decision in the Dixon case, the state board of the NAACP planned a rally in Tyler to protest police violence and brutality towards African Americans. The Dixon case was not the first allegation of police misconduct; in the year prior to the Dixon shooting, two local black men died while in police custody.

Once Michael Lowe of Waco heard of the planned NAACP rally in Tyler, he organized members of the Ku Klux Klan to rally a few miles down the street in front of the county courthouse. Reports indicate that about 300 locals showed up to the rally and local law enforcement gathered approximately 200 officers “to prevent trouble.”[10] Thankfully, no one was hurt at either rally. Police turned away anyone who attempted to counter-protest and so the two rallies remained segregated.

On the surface, many white Americans ardently disagree with the idea of the Klan, but a recent survey indicates that many agree with aspects of white supremacists’ doctrines.

During the early and mid-1990s, members of the Ku Klux Klan began holding public rallies without wearing their traditional robes. In the fall of 1996, Lowe and other Klan members manned a booth at a local festival, the Yamboree, in Gilmer, about 40 miles northeast of Tyler. During the three-day event, Klan members passed out information about their organization and attempted to recruit local residents.[11] As in recent years, Lowe explained that his organization did not represent hate or white supremacy, but rather promoted white pride. Perhaps using this type of language and abandoning the use of robes in public made the Klan more palatable to more white Americans. On the surface, many white Americans ardently disagree with the idea of the Klan, but a recent survey indicates that many agree with aspects of white supremacists’ doctrines.

While Klan activity appeared to have dissipated in East Texas in the early-twenty-first century, more recent activity illustrates that many of those values are still alive and well in East Texas. In many parts of the area, groups join together to celebrate Confederate Heroes Day, an official state holiday which just so happens to fall three days after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Generally speaking, the only people who really celebrate this day are members of groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Unfortunately, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans cling tightly to the “Lost Cause,” the idea that the Civil War was not about slavery. They promote the false belief that Southern states simply wanted to preserve states’ rights.

Despite the fact that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, celebrators of Hero Day believe that the Confederates fought to prevent the United States from becoming a socialist democracy.[12] That is a dangerous viewpoint because it allows white East Texans, and Americans more generally, to ignore the implications of slavery and the continued racist attitudes that followed emancipation for generations. For someone who does not believe that the Civil War was about slavery, things like statutes of Confederate soldiers and Confederate flags must seem benign.

In reality these symbols continue to illustrate hate and racism toward African Americans. While racism exists beyond Tyler, Texas and the Pine Curtain, understanding the tradition of racist policies and actions will hopefully create a dialogue, which will lead to a more inclusive society for all Americans. If we ignore this past, Americans will never be able to have an honest conversation about race in this country.

rhys dotsonM. Rhys Dotson currently serves as a Lecturer of History and Political Science at UT-Tyler in Tyler, Texas. Additionally, he is currently working on his PhD in Modern American History at Texas A&M University. His research interests center on LGBT Civil Rights. You can reach Rhys on Twitter at @aggie_rhys.

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[1] Ramona Houston, “The NAACP State Conference in Texas: Intermediary and Catalyst for Change, 1937-1957,” The Journal of African American History 94, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 523.

[2] Jonas Levias Jewett, “The NAACP Needs No Defense,” Tyler Star, October 7, 1956.

[3] Houston, 523.

[4] Judge William Wayne Justice was a product of the Pine Curtain. He was born in Athens, which is about 40 miles west of Tyler.  After graduating from the University of Texas Law School, Justice practiced in Athens before being appointed as the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.  Justice was later appointed to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.

[5] Frank R. Kemerer William Wayne Justice: A Judicial Biography (Austin: University of Texas Pres, 2008), 98-130.

[6] Lee Hancock, “Unfinished history: Black Tyler’s long fight to change the name – and many other things – at Robert E. Lee High,” The Tyler Loop, September 18, 2017.

[7] Hancock

[8] David H. K. Nguyen and Gabriel R. Serna, “Access or Barrier? Tuition and Fee Legislation for Undocumented Students across the States,” The Clearing House 87, no. 3 (May 2014): 124-125.

[9] Robert Suro, “Police Shooting Focuses Black Anger in Texas City,” The New York Times, August 10, 1992.

[10] “Klan rallies in East Texas city before NAACP gathering,” United Press International, August 22, 1992.

[11] Phillip Williams, “Yamboree serves up tons of fun for thousands of ETexans,” Longview News-Journal, October 20, 1996.

[12] Forrest Wilder, “Celebrating Confederate Heroes Day in East Texas,” Texas Observer, January 20, 2012.

4 comments on “Hate Behind the Pine Curtain

  1. Absolutely amazing read. Thank you so much

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a well-written and informative read. Localizing this kind of information to smaller communities is a brave course of action. It directly calls on those communities to reflect on their accountability of actions not only in the present but also challenges their stance on what happened in the past. Thank you for your time and dedication to dig deeper into these particular topics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great resource, Rhys, thanks for putting this together. Your readers may also be interested in Lee Hancock’s incredibly comprehensive timeline about segregated schools over at The Tyler Loop: https://thetylerloop.com/robert-e-lee-high-school-race-and-segregation-in-tyler-a-130-year-timeline/ — Tasneem Raja, editor, The Tyler Loop

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

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