Truth or Myth in History

Cult of Glory, The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers

Doug J. Swanson

Viking, 410 pages, 2020




America still struggles with slavery and its legacy. We furiously argue the presence of statues on public grounds that celebrate slavery’s defenders. Even statues of slave owing Founding Fathers are under attack, as well as other monuments that glorify past leaders who do not fit today’s cultural or political standards. For example, when the removal of the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park is mentioned, the cry of re-writing history or destroying heritage rears its voice. However, is the removal from public lands of such statues a re-writing of history or instead a re-examination of the integrity involved when such a tribute is placed on public land? Is it possible that, by removing such statues, we are not re-writing history but being more honest about the person receiving such homage?

Washington National Airport, through the work of certain members of Congress, was renamed in 1998 to honor Ronald Reagan who mass fired 11,000 workers in order to break an air traffic controllers’ strike. How ironic that a man who fired so many workers was honored by his name being added to Washington National Airport. Although airport workers, citizen groups, and others objected (as did I), the honoring of Reagan was accomplished. For me, I imagine that I would have felt the same betrayal to values had I been present at the unveiling of a southern traitor’s statue to glorify the lost cause.  Our obsession with naming to honor is a strange and sometimes dishonest business.

As a boy during the 1950’s in North Carolina, I longed to grow up and fight  a just cause like John Wayne, Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood, and other heroes. Each week I watched on television as the Lone Ranger and Tonto served justice. No other role could match that of being a fighter saving settlers from Comanches, rustlers, and vicious outlaws. I grew believing that the Texas Rangers were everything America stood for.  I believed the myth, just as others have embraced the myth of “heritage not hate.”

But I was not alone in believing the Texas Ranger myth. In 1961 the famed Texas Ranger statue that bears the inscription, “One Riot-One Ranger”, was unveiled at Dallas’ Love Field. Sergeant E.J. “Jay” Banks served as the model of  the statue honoring the Texas Rangers. The inscription was from a comment made to assure a local official that only one ranger was needed to quell a riot. Banks’ reputation and myth grew out of a riot at Rusk State Hospital in April of 1955 when some eighty inmates seized control of their unit housing the criminally insane. Described as “crazed negroes” by a reporter, the group captured three workers and was led by a muscular Ben Riley. The unit was one of filth, strong antipsychotic drug use for controlling inmates, electronic shock treatments, and some frontal lobotomies. One investigator wrote that the men “would just sit like cigar-store Indians.” The riot drew attention and Banks walked in to negotiate with Riley who was convinced that he  would be given a fair hearing and to surrender. He did. But Riley’s fair hearing was constant solitary confinement, strong antipsychotic drugs, and regular electronic shocks. Banks emerged wrapped in a mythical robe that he would wear later in other riots.

When the NAACP tried to integrate Mansfield High School, Governor Shivers sent in Ranger Banks, who was instructed to arrest any black student who tried to enter Mansfield High School. Banks positioned himself outside the school where a effigy hung from over the main entrance. Banks and his co-Ranger, Captain Crowder did not remove the effigy, nor did they arrest any white protestors. However, Banks did notice a man distributing “pro-integration literature.” Banks saw the flyers as “inflammatory literature” and after seizing all of it, literally booted the man from the area. When the Reverend  D.W. Clark spoke to the white mob and its members began shouting at Clark, Banks saw Clark as “inciting the anger of the crowd when he attempted to preach to them, criticizing their actions.” Instead of dealing with the angry mob, Banks took Clark by the arm and suggested that he go home, leaving the disturbance to the experts. A Ranger. A well published news photograph of Banks during the Mansfield High School failed integration shows him leaning against a tree, foot propped against it, Stetson pushed back on his head, and the effigy hanging above the school’s entrance in the background. Banks did even more to protect the white mobs when in September 1956 two black students arrived to integrate Texarkana Junior College. When the angry, white mob physically attacked her male counterpart, Jessalyn Gray pleaded to Banks, the ranking law enforcement officer on duty,  for protection. Not only did he refuse to protect her, he threatened to arrest her if she tired to enroll. The Rangers, according to Banks, were there to maintain order, and her integrating the college would cause civil unrest.

The history of  the Texas Rangers is one of violence, often against innocent Mexicans, settlers, or anyone who a Ranger saw as not a true Texan. There is no shortage of vengeful acts by Rangers, sometimes against peaceful persons, such as the massacre at Porvenir in 1918. Any Mexican who roused suspicion was in grave danger because as Ranger C.B. Hudspeth said, “You have to kill these Mexicans when you find them, or they will kill you.” Hudspeth County, Texas honors such a Ranger by its name. Swanson’s finely researched and documented book shows how we can get caught up with emotion that overrides our senses.

Naming is a fine way to honor any person. It is  done worldwide. However, it seems to me that America has named too much to honor too little. We have holidays, streets, parks, towns, and more named to honor. Okay, fine. But let us be certain that the person being so honored, while not perfect, fills most of the space that defines extraordinary, heroic, or heads above all of us. Let’s be certain that we honor out of fact not myth.

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